[Fiction] Pure Radical - part 1
Teri was thunder on Twitter. For a 24-year-old San Francisco middle school math teacher who’d been voted “Most likely to die in the apocalypse” in high school, she was surprisingly electric with her tweets. Whenever the haters came after the city’s teachers, doe-eyed Teri was there to clap back—hard. Of course, she made it a point to keep it positive at school, for the kids; and because, yeah, she sometimes wondered if she’d gone too far? But in truth, she was done with the entitled parents who treated schools like they were private jet companies owing them free flights and a bag of personalized nuts (she was particularly pleased with that turn of phrase when the tweet got 100 retweets); even if she would die of discomfort saying this to anyone’s face. The way teachers had been treated during the early years of the pandemic had radicalized her, and Twitter was there for her during her loneliest hours.
She’d sent this tweet off from her egg account after an especially bad parent-teacher Zoom in the fall of her third year of teaching.
Teacher Teri @RadicalMathTeachgrr
So tired of yt parents who want schools to be achievement processing plants that turn their little gods into single-serving slices of plastic American cheese! Exhausted, y’all, and no one cares. #reimagineeducation #listentoteachers
She imagined the look on the face of a particularly irksome PTA mom as she hit post.
Then she felt bad and took her dog out for a walk, politely navigating the streets of the west side until the guilt wore off.
It didn’t take long. The tweet got her 394 likes, including an organic cheese collective and one of the leaders of the local political clubs she admired. So what if 50 people had blocked her and 74 had muted her, including a famous tech CEO and two writers at the San Francisco Chronicle, she reasoned as she carried Janice, her geriatric dog, home? The dog had sat down and refused to move two minutes into the walk. The Chronicle was a moderate shill, as everyone knew—or, at least, she did now after some quick online research in a shady grove in Golden Gate Park when her old guilt and worries got the best of her. Teri went to bed that night in her lonely two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment, increasingly resolved to take comfort in the fact that she had just as many fans as trolls these days.
Thankfully, during the dark winter of that year, when even Janice had growled at the idea of going outside, Teri had one follower in particular who she felt really saw her and the liberation journey she was on. Teri had dashed off a rage post about her classroom still not having a proper HEPA air filter.
“The humanity!” That had been one of @CosmicRadical’s first responses to her tweets. Teri had laughed and paused to appreciate the deep insight of that comment. It was so rare.
Soon after, on a long December night when Teri had ordered an extra amount of booze with her nightly Door Dash, added a side profile picture, and gone a little dark live tweeting a contentious Board of Education vote on banning PTA fundraisers, Cosmic Radical quote tweeted her entire thread. His comment: “Those PTA parents wouldn’t know radical if it bit them in the solar plexus, right @RadicalMathTeachgrr?!”
Teri laughed again, and then wept into her wine bottle; the vote failed. It had been just what she needed to hear. What no one else knew was that night, in addition to all the usual nonsense, was also the third-anniversary death of her father from the second wave of the virus. He’d been forced back into school while Teri sat mutely by, and then he’d died. Her mother had died when she was a kid, in the stifling heat of a suburban Chicago summer.
Cosmic Radical. What a strange name.
Teri fingered her wine bottle and put it down in favor of digging into her laptop browser. Was it a yoga studio? A wellness center? Maybe a math thing? She did love fellow numbers geeks. It was no doubt what made her such an amazing teacher; well, and her dad’s influence.
Much to Teri’s delight, a basic Google search revealed that the Pure Radical Foundation was a non-profit “investing in the grassroots, marginalized people power movements in the Bay Area.” Their funding appeared to come entirely from a small, nothing of a company that sold some sort of space microscope. Teri loved sci-fi and actual science, so she felt mollified, and more than a little fan girl. She raised her bottle in salute and then felt embarrassed. Later that night, a very drunk Teri swapped in a glam shot of her in her best going-out mask and got a little reckless.
Teacher Teri @RadicalMathTeachgrr
Honest question to my fellow educators, y’all. If someone from your district’s Central Office literally dropped dead at work, would anyone notice? #reimagineeducation #listentoteachers
Teri almost spit out her drink when Cosmic Radical’s comments and likes pinged on her laptop not too long after.
Cosmic Radical @CosmicRadical
@RadicalMathTeachgrr Why wait to find out? 👀
“You and the other teachers never should have died, dad, and I’m not afraid to say it anymore,” she’d whispered, and drunk the rest of the bottle, blissfully unashamed of her smile at long last.
On a foggy, dank Wednesday morning in March the following spring, Teri was glued to her phone in a classroom on the second floor of her school, DMing back and forth with Cosmic Radical again during a staff meeting. She’d spent so much time talking with him these days—talking with him about the big ideas that she’d never even allowed herself to think before—that even Tinder had gone to ghost mode on her phone and she’d begun contemplating a new career altogether. No one cared about the voices of teachers, the real experts; everyone with any sense on Twitter agreed. Cosmic Radical thought she should quit immediately, but Teri knew she couldn’t leave the kids. They sparred about this a lot. Who would be there for the kids, if she left?
Teri was getting a little prickly about the constant pushing, especially from a man who still refused to tell her his real name.
Fine. Then tell me your real name if you want me to take you seriously. How do I know you’re not a catfish?
Soon, love. Gotta go. Remember: if the meeting gets too bad, you can always try to take the radical roots of the Fibonacci sequence :)
Teri sighed and put away her phone.
At the front of the room, her principal was droning on about rules for the copier. It was the one staff development day for the year and she had lobbied hard—albeit in the anonymous “suggestion box”—to spend the precious hours on breathing more life into the school’s ailing restorative justice program, but everything had become a budget discussion, even the math curriculum. Teri’s fingers itched to complain tweet, though she smiled anytime her principal looked her way, like a nervous prey, then immediately hated herself. Why couldn’t her Twitter self be her real life?
“So, you’ll need to request a special access code for the printer in writing at least two weeks before you need to print.” Those were actual words coming out of the principal’s mouth.
Teri sighed, took her phone back out, scrolled over to Twitter, and stared, slightly disappointed at her stats since she’d changed the picture on her account to a dimly lit photo of herself in braids, at Cosmic Radical’s suggestion (whoever he was—was she being catfished?). In the last hour, she’d only had 11 new likes and four retweets of the diagram she had put together last night showing the dark money conspiracy behind the attacks on the School Board, including her own school’s dragon-like PTA. She pressed a desultory like on CosmicRadical’s latest reply to the graph, which was a pithy, “You are 🔥 🤎.”
“Finally,” Her principal, who was a tired-looking Black man who’d been at the school for 30 years, raised his voice at the front of the room and looked her way. “Let me remind everyone that we depend very heavily for some of your salaries and what few supplies we do still have on the fundraising of our generous PTA, and whether you want to hear this or not, these parents are all over Twitter in this town and aren’t as stupid as they seem.” A few teachers laughed, and a few snorted in disbelief. “So, lay off the conspiracy theories on the Internet, okay team? We can’t afford it. Let’s pull it in for our chant.”
The principal raised his noticeably shaky hand into the ridiculous school team cheer position and looked right at Teri, his gaze decidedly less shaky.
Teri automatically smiled back and stood up on cue like an awkward alien-looking puppet on strings (Teri had been teased mercilessly in high school about her enormous eyes and tiny body), and then hated herself for it once again. She hated it so much.
It wasn’t until Teri was alone in the staff bathroom 15 minutes later (she brought her own roll of toilet paper with her in her backpack since there wasn’t any) that she got control of the inevitable tears that welled up when she couldn’t speak up in front of people; it was embarrassing how much she cried these days—this she didn’t tell Cosmic Radical. “What are you doing, Teri?” she whispered to herself. “What’s it going to take?”
Was she going to live her whole life this way? Become her dad, and let the system kill her? He’d spent 40 years of his career as a high school English teacher pouring all his rage into red pencil markups of all publications from the Hinsdale Community Consolidated school district and then mailing them back in unmarked envelopes with notes like, “To: Illiterate Fascists.”
Teri stroked the blue of the Twitter bird on her phone laying open on the sink, and shuddered, feeling the effects of the bottle of wine she’d drunk last night once again.
Just then, Cosmic Radical’s name flashed at the top of her phone.
Teri swiped hard, nearly knocking the phone off the sink.
Teri - Let me introduce myself formally at long last—sorry that I’ve been so cagey whenever you’ve asked. I wasn’t sure I could trust you fully. My name is Li Tunde, and I’m the director of a foundation trying to put together a meeting of the minds of the most radical people in the Bay Area. I know this is out of the blue, but how would you like to live in the Marin Headlands for one year and have all the resources you could dream of to build the universe’s most RADICAL society and education system, shoulder to shoulder with the 100 most RADICAL leaders in the Bay Area, including fellow teachers? (You convinced me we had to have a lot more teachers than we initially planned ;) We’d pay you three times your current salary, plus full health and dental. I swear this is a real offer, love. Please say yes! - Li Tunde, Director, Pure Radical Foundation
Teri laughed out loud and then clamped her hand over her mouth in embarrassment and indignation. Wait, it had never occurred to her that he wouldn’t trust her. Had she said something wrong? Teri stared at herself in the mirror and ignored the pounding on the door.
Would she want to leave her job and get paid to go to camp?
Teri flinched at the sight of her face, and the desperate want. He hadn’t trusted her? Oh god, could she trust him?! Teri’s body flooded with pre-emptive worry as she pocketed her phone, washed and then sanitized her hands (she also had to pay for her own soap and sanitizer) and walked the crowded halls back to her classroom, trying to remember to walk as confidently as possible. (She’d learned the hard way that kids would sometimes mistake her for a teen and try to snap her bra.) Was he a catfish?
She swiped open her phone.
Prove you're not a catfish.
She yanked open the door of her classroom and her head spun as she waited for his reply. Teri had a hard time breathing.
Five minutes later, a shaky Teri got her class settled onto their Chromebooks, told them to watch a video on multiplying fractions, and punched “Pure Radical Foundation finances” into Google on her iPhone behind the plexiglass barrier at her desk. Now that the possibility had been planted in her head, she couldn’t wait to find out if she was being trolled.
“Load, dammit!” Teri hissed.
A few kids looked up, though most were clearly already toggled over to YouTube instead of the assignment. The small part of Teri’s brain registered the fact with a sigh. But what could she do? She’d lobbied so hard (anonymously) to improve the curriculum and make it more relevant, but no one wanted to listen. The school district really was hopeless.
She jabbed her finger at her browser.
But an alert for a message from Li Tunde/Cosmic Radical got in the way. Teri bent down to squint at her screen, heart pounding. (Also, some of the overhead lights were also broken.)
What she read made her gasp.
No, we’re not a dark money scheme, Teri. But it’s good you’re careful and ask the hard questions. It’s exactly why I NEED you to join us. You, Teri Marckmann. Our financials and a picture of the deposit on your new salary we’re sending your way today are attached. Ask me any questions. Truly. We can even jump onto FaceTime. Clean as a star, I promise, love. -Li
Teri sucked in a hard breath and sat back hard. FaceTime.
A girl in the front row stared at her. “Ms. Marckmann, why did you tweet that my mom is part of a conservative dark money, like, web or something?” Cassie. She was holding up her phone and showing it to the other kids like it was porn.
A few kids started doing the “oooh!” sound.
Teri’s face flushed. FaceTime? With Li? And then flushed again, focusing more clearly on Cassie’s seemingly innocent face. Teri didn’t realize her students had found her on Twitter. “Actually, that’s misinformation, Cassie.”
“But she’s the president of the PTA, which is on your, uh, spidey thingy. Right here.” Cassie flashed her phone screen at the class again. “What is dark money, by the way? Isn’t that racist?” Cassie again, scrunching her dainty, pale nose. Her skin was the same color as Teri’s pasty otherworldly white, but somehow much more grating.
Teri took a moment. And then another. She really was a great teacher, after all.
“I’m so glad you’re talking about racism so openly, Cassie, but no, that’s not what I was saying, though we shouldn’t ever be afraid to call out racism when we see it. Phone away and mask over your nose now, please! We’ll talk more later in private. I, uh, promise.” Teri winked—or at least tried to, it may have looked like an eye twitch—and then felt ill with herself.
She mentally placed a bet with herself that Cassie’s mom would stop by her classroom tomorrow to “talk.” She rubbed her thumb over her screen nervously and tried to figure out what to do about this message from Li. FaceTime—with Li! Stay at school or take a leap of faith? Triple her salary sounded good.
If only the universe would send a sign.
It came fast. By fifth period, every kid in the school had seen her tweet, and Teri had a sinking feeling it was only a matter of time before she was called into her principal’s office for a formal disciplining. Cassie’s mom had also sent her multiple emails about “chatting,” with an escalating series of praise-hands emojis.
Still, going to the camp was such a big leap.
Reimagining education was Teri's dream, her fucking dream she reminded herself with increasing agitation as her last class of the day took an online quiz/did youtube and she beat a pencil against her desk. How dare they question her. If she went on the retreat, she could build the school system of her liberation fantasies, just like all the radical educators she followed talked about on Twitter—no more trolls, no more peasant wages, and nominal healthcare. No more racist curriculum. No more having to talk to parents with fucking praise hands. God, no more buying her own glue sticks for the kids’ distance learning packets or finding her own substitutes when she wanted to work from home on Fridays. No entitled parents and their “chats.” Or do nothing principals—not that she’d ever call him that to his face; Teri wasn’t quite sure how to reconcile her principal’s Blackness with him being bad at his job.
Li wanted Teri and Teri wanted …
Wait, how much—exactly—would she be getting paid?
Teri gripped her phone and re-read Li’s message, opened the money transfer, and stared at the financials. Teri was committed to dismantling capitalism, of course, but everyone knew getting paid well was self-care. The number had to be good.
She yelped. The number was so much more than she’d ever made. Could she really do this? Leave the kids?
Her phone buzzed again.
Cosmic Radical @CosmicRadical
@RadicalMathTeachgrr Don’t doubt yourself, grrl. If this were a movie, what would you want the protagonist to do—go to more staff meetings? 🤣🤣🤣
She snorted, and looked around her classroom full of kids on YouTube—who was she kidding? They deserved so much better—hit reply and typed two words: “I’m yours.” And ran, literally ran, out of the school before the end of the period, desperate not to run into her principal or Cassie’s mom before she could flee. A few kids laughed at her.
I’ll make it up to you, was all she could think.
Teri drove away from San Francisco with Janice a few weeks later, still somewhere between nervous and terrified.
This was really happening. A truly radical society!
Teri grabbed her phone and swiped open the app while she waited for the red light in front of the dark tunnel entrance to the Marin Headlands just over the Golden Gate Bridge, bouncing her knee under the steering wheel. It was a two-way one-lane road with a five-minute red light, and there was already a long line of cars behind her.
Teacher Teri @RadicalMathTeachgrr
In math, a radical reduces a number to its more essential factors. Thinking about the number 100 today, aka 5√2, and wondering if it’s better to be the five or the two? Or maybe the humble √? Math is liberation, y’all, and I’m a dreamer. At long last! #cosmicradicalretreat #herewego
Even if she wanted to (she didn’t), she couldn’t turn back now. She put her foot on the gas.
Teri missed the buzz of the response as her phone went dead a few seconds later in the surprisingly long, pitch-black tunnel.
Cosmic Radical @CosmicRadical
Break a leg, you killer protostar! ⭐️ #teamteri
The first night’s opening bonfire was magical for Teri. Her friend, Li Tunde, who turned out to be even more uncomfortably magnetic in person, stood next to the large fire on the windy, dark beach, swept his hands out over the crowd in welcome, and then clapped them together in delight. The boom of the impact was oddly loud and seemed to reverberate through the air, which was part of the fun. It truly seemed as if anything could happen here.
Teri laughed to herself, as quietly as possible.
“Welcome, radical activists! I am so honored to have you here.”
The group clapped or jazz handed their mutual appreciation. Teri was pleased to see that there was even an ASL translator next to Li and his documentary camera crew, which almost offset her worry that the crowd was so surprisingly white; she did plan to talk to Li about that. Or was she supposed to keep DMing him instead and keep their friendship on the down low? A knot twisted in her stomach.
An attractive golden-haired guy across the fire next to an ice-blonde woman with a baby strapped to her front caught her eye and smiled and Teri looked away quickly, more doubt nagging at her. The blonde guy was also impossibly beautiful in a nerdy way—a shocking number of people at the camp were, in fact—which was making Teri feel even more self-conscious. Was she the only normal person here? She blushed from the worry and reassured herself that she was in the right place once again; she’d been doing a lot of that over the last few hours.
Li lifted his voice again, distracting her from her gnawing discomfort. Waiters came through passing around flutes of champagne.
“Please don’t mind our little camera crew, friends. As you’ll remember from the contracts you signed before arriving, they’ll be here for our Friday night bonfire ceremonies and your obligatory evening one-on-one interviews, but I promise they’ll be completely invisible otherwise. Like a beautiful asymptote.”
Teri laughed, as did the guy who’d winked at her. But only them. People stared and Teri blushed.
Li cleared his throat and took a deep breath. His voice dropped into an impressively low resonance that all but thundered across the sky. “Now. The Cosmic Radical Foundation has brought together 100 of the most radical humanist activists on Twitter in this area—and their children—to live together, work together and reimagine the world together. All here in the lovely Marin Headlands! Praise!”
Teri lifted her hands to applaud loudly—but not too loudly—around her now-empty champagne flute. When she got her briefing packet a week ago, she’d been gob-smacked to read that the National Park Service, which managed the enormous park overlooking the northern end of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, had agreed to allow the Cosmic Radical Foundation sole use of the park for the next year. In fact, they had torn down every structure in the enormous park except two dorm buildings, a bathroom shack, the cafeteria, and a mansion-like building in the far-away southern hills for Li and the rest of the foundation staff. Oh, and the old nuclear missile silos; not that that would be relevant. The camp was supposed to reimagine the whole place and build it anew. Teri had audibly gasped with delight.
Another thing to ask Li. Teri assumed there had been a large donation involved, which she supposed should make her feel a little queasy. Maybe? Or was it OK to turn the design over to people who had no financial interests? Truly radical people. But mostly what she felt was gratitude, wonder, and a deep sense of rightness; a perfect overlap of her internal Venn Diagrams. The Marin Headlands beach and hiking trails were some of her favorite places to escape to with Janice when she was having a hard week, especially this past winter, though the Internet reception was notoriously non-existent.
Li Tunde turned in a circle. “You are housing activists, education activists, pleasure activists, civil rights, disability rights, maternal health, wellness, legal, tech, philanthropic, gun control, land rights activists and so much more. And you are here to change the world!”
Teri grinned despite herself. All concerns aside, this was such an honor. She took another sip of wine, pleased by the light and fruity taste.
“Every Friday night we’ll come together for the bonfire ceremony to recognize the most radical work in the community. Otherwise, starting tomorrow morning, you’ll sequester in your individual expertise teams to develop the most radical visions for this community, and then put them into practice starting in a week. No boundaries, no restrictions on what’s allowed. Anything is possible on this Earth!”
A woman directly behind Teri snorted and raised her voice. “But where are we going to live, Li? This beautiful body is not sleeping on a bunk bed in a cabin without a toilet for the next year. And I’m sure as hell not camping or dying in some janky hospital. We doing vaccine passports here?”
A few people laughed appreciatively and Teri flinched from all the eyes on her area once again.
Li Tunde strode over to them in what felt like less than a heartbeat and wrapped the woman’s manicured hands in his own, directly over Teri’s head. It was way too much attention for Teri, even indirectly, and she didn’t know what to do. The camera lights were surprisingly bright, and when Teri tried to shift back into the darkness, Li Tunde smiled down at her like he was there just for her. Her stomach flipped even as she shrank. Why did he have to be so attractive? Why couldn’t she be more attractive?
“Ah, teacher Teri Marckmann. What do you think about our pleasure activist’s concern? Should we raze the land and build you some nice beachfront condos for the year?” Li winked.
“What? Absolutely not!” Teri blurted.
The woman stepped forward around Teri into the camera lights and looked back in posed disgust; she was large and curvy and ridiculously gorgeous. Teri flinched again and went flaming red, crossing her scrawny, flabby knees.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to suggest you were wrong! So, uh, maybe we could ask the experts here instead of me? Housing is not really my field,” Teri backpedaled hard, trying to fade into the infinite night sky. After all, she would hate it if a non-teacher told her how to do her job; her mind flashed back to Cassie’s mother’s praise hands.
Li Tunde raised his glossy black eyebrows in delight.
“Excellent idea, Teri! Why don’t we make it a demonstration of what this retreat is all about?” He clapped and hurried off to scan the crowd and invite select people to come to the front and stand in a circle around the fire. It was about 10 people in total. Again, Teri was uncomfortably aware of the ratio of White people—should she say something? Now? Shouldn’t it at least be acknowledged? She was glad to know that she at least was keeping her eyes on the prize.
Li’s voice boomed again. “Welcome Housing and Land Team. Though you have not yet met, Ms. Marckmann and I have asked you to come up here right now to decide on the most radical solution to where you all will be living for the next year.”
She signaled the waiter for more wine and took out her phone, prepared to leave if things got worse.
Meanwhile, Li Tunde stalked around the group at the fire. “Therefore, I now invite you into the circle of humanity. Please, show us what radical really means. Do not hold back! You set the tone for this entire retreat! Go!”
Teri tapped her phone nervously. Her Twitter app was taking forever to load. She only had one damn bar. Was it a sign?
But the group of people around the fire didn’t hesitate. Maybe it was the champagne. Maybe not. And over the next 10 minutes, Teri found herself unable to look away, almost forgetting her phone.
“The cabins are perfectly nice,” a short man barked out first. He was standing too close to the fire for Teri’s comfort. “The Marin Headlands should be preserved at all costs!”
A svelte red-haired woman on the other side of the fire snorted. “Why should people who’ve already lived with trauma sleep on a fucking wooden board? No, we build more dignified housing for the people who need it most.”
“And who decides who needs it most? You?!”
A woman wearing all white and a turban, which seemed more than a little cliche to Teri, but also sort of alien and glamorous, jumped in, too. “Please, we can figure this out. We don’t need to shout at each other. We just need to reject capitalism and build lightly and share smaller spaces.”
“Uh, yeah, but how am I supposed to optimize who I am if you’re always in my space? Setting boundaries is radical self-love.” A man in all black jumped in from the audience. He had shaved his head and covered it with glitter. His mask read “It’s my pleasure to be me.”
“No, this isn’t even our land. How dare we suggest we build anything?” A dark-skinned man Teri couldn’t see that well added. He’d also come out of the audience. Well, maybe there were more BIPOC people here than she’d realized.
Teri’s skin tingled from the electricity of the debate, and she drank some more.
“So, what, then? We live in the ocean?” That was the original complainer, GRACE, the pleasure activist. She’d walked up to position herself right in front of the cameras. There had to be 20 people up at the fire by now, and Teri was enthralled. She instinctively raised her phone camera to film the fight. In fact, the whole audience was now a sea of glinting phones. Quite nice phones, in fact. Teri shimmied a little in excitement.
“Yeah, are you suggesting we just live in the ocean?”
There was a long pause as the people around the fire stared at each other and the cameras kept filming. A baby on a ridiculously beautiful white-blonde woman screamed. Then two people blurted out at once.
“We could get boats.”
“Who the fuck are you to decide?!”
Then the group started shouting at each other.
Teri expected Li Tunde to intervene at that point, but he was conspicuously silent, off to the side. And it was electric. The conversation got even more heated. Way hot. Which made it, to Teri’s boozed mind, truly incredible. That was the only word Teri had for it. Teri’s dad had shunned physical affection, and she’d had no other family besides her math books since her mom’s only legacy was Teri’s rent-controlled apartment, via some random aunt. So the fire and unbridled passion once the initial shouting stopped felt like porn; but actually transgressive. She couldn’t look away.
Or stop drinking.
In fact, for at least an hour as Teri sat and drank more and more champagne and the stars passed across the sky, no one could agree on common meeting rules or even a vision for an outcome. Someone even got slapped and Teri gasped along with the rest of the crowd and leaned in more, delighted, and waved her hand absently for more popcorn from the waiters.
Radical change was messy, she realized in a sudden rush of epiphany somewhere around the hour mark. It was loud, it was ugly and it was uncomfortable. Real change had never happened before in this country without blood running in the street, had it? A chill then a warm buzz spread through her body and Teri laughed out loud, startling Janice from her sleep. Li Tunde glanced her way from across the fire and lifted his glass in salute. Had he winked at her?!
She pushed away the feeling it tripped in her heart.
But yeah, she burned with the wish to share this moment—to have a community.
And then, like she was perfectly in tune with the universe, Teri’s phone flashed in her hands, too. Service, finally! Beeps chirped across the campfire, drowning out the sounds of increasingly tired children. Teri swiped open Twitter and uploaded the video of the fight and typed as fast as she could before she lost service again. Her fingers were a little sloppy on the keyboard thanks to the alcohol, but she felt pretty good about her words. Damn good. Like a new Teri.
Teacher Teri is a Cosmic Radical @RadicalMathTeachgrr
A video of my new √ life. Love you Housing Team, but hoping we don’t have to live on boats? The open ocean will kill us all, y’all 🦈 😬 #Terisradicalsabbatical #vacationforliberation #sharkweek?
Teri knew she was tipsy, but she began to worry she was really drunk and hallucinating when her phone immediately started buzzing with likes and new followers a moment later. Was it possible? She squinted at the screen. Two thousand in under two minutes? She’d never had that kind of ratio before, even with her spiciest tweets and sexiest profile picture (she had recently changed hers again to a photo of her wearing lipstick with the π sign superimposed—someone had already accused her of posting a Nazi symbol). A bunch of other people were hunched over their phones, too, looking like it was Christmas. Was it just a network effect? They’d all agreed to follow each other on Twitter just after arriving and add the “is a Cosmic Radical” phrase to their user names, but, still …
Teri shook her head and decided she needed some air before she got into the math of the conundrum. She woke up Janice and got up to use the bathroom in the parking lot on the other side of the road from the sprawling beach. Maybe she was hallucinating? The Marin Headlands’ main beach had been rocks last time she was here, but the sand under her feet felt like soft sand.
It didn’t make sense.
She tried to think how this could have been possible, but someone caught her arm when her bare feet hit the freezing concrete of the road, and it flew out of her mind. It was the golden-haired nerd god from across the bonfire.
“Hey, I’m Mark. I’m a radical giver. Can I give you my body tonight?”
Teri blinked and then smiled reflexively and dumbly in shock, totally unable to form a response. Had he really just said that? She wasn’t exactly the most worldly woman when it came to sex; her one and only serious boyfriend had left her a month into the pandemic after discovering polygamy and telling her he’d never actually found her attractive. But why was he asking her? Teri’s body flushed with simultaneous arousal shame and anger, and then the realization that her bladder was about to burst.
“Uh, I think the medical team is taking blood donations?” With Janice hot on her heels, Teri ran for the bathroom before she could register Mark’s reaction, slammed the door to the cabin and stared at her wide eyes in the cobwebbed bathroom mirror. Those damn alien eyes. Why couldn’t she be more like the people at the bonfire? Beautiful, fearless? What was so hard about speaking her mind, when the moment came? The moment sank in harder and Teri slapped her hand on the sink: The creep had tried to insult her.
Teri jammed her feelings into a Twitter box, adding a #ytmencantstopwontstop for good measure, before closing herself in a toilet stall to silently scream. How could she call herself a radical if she didn’t know how to clap back in real life?
The release of urine felt almost as good as the absolute avalanche of laughing-crying-face emoji responses from her new followers a few moments later. An incredible avalanche. It was freezing in the toilet, along with the rest of camp. She hunched down lower and scrolled through her responses, letting them warm her up as she stared in shock. 300 retweets? 484 replies?
Ituul It Fan Boy @ituulitASTRATH
@RadicalMathTeachgrr I think you just met the human equivalent of Tupper’s Self-Referential Formula! Are you going to conjugate with him?!!!! #Cosmicradicalfan
Teri choked, ignoring the tears pricking her eyes and the bursting feeling in her heart. She might not be the quickest when it came to banter in person, but the Twitter response practically wrote themselves.
Teacher Teri is a Cosmic Radical @RadicalMathTeachgrr
@ItuulitASTRATH Tempting, but the only function I want to graph is a better world. #mathb4dick
Yup, Teri felt a lot better then.
In fact, after leaving the bathroom, Teri barely paid attention to the last hour of the bonfire or her lingering concerns about the crowd, or her less-than-model looks. Her Twitter followers had jumped to 1.5K and her phone had all of her attention. Oh, and the delicious champagne.
She did everything in her power to avoid looking at golden-haired Mark. The booze was golden, too.
Later that night, her obligatory one-on-one interview with Li Tunde was more of a blur than she would have liked.
“So, Teri, what does radical mean to you, and how has it changed since you arrived? Here, have some more champagne. It’s easy to get dehydrated in the Headlands.”
Teri wasn’t thirsty and that didn’t really make any sense, but it felt rude not to take the drink, and once she smelled it, it felt rude not to even drink. She was so overwhelmed by the experience already, and the bright camera lights didn’t help, or Li’s impossibly symmetrical face. She squirmed and tried to think of something impressive to say.
Li Tunde leaned forward abruptly and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Do you think there’s anyone here at the retreat who shouldn’t be here? Like, for example, Mark? I’m so sorry he accosted you, by the way. We’ve spoken to him already.”
Teri glanced at the cameras and tried not to let her smile show. Clearly, Li was going to look out for her special during this camp. Of course he would. “Whatever, I knew he was making fun of me! What an asshole.”
Tunde nodded sagely. “Do you think other people feel the same way about him? Anyone from the radical Education Team?”
“Oh my god, I’m so nervous about meeting them, Li. Can I tell you that?” Teri took another big sip of champagne. Why was it so good? She had planned to get sober during this camp, not that she was an alcoholic.
“Of course you can! Now, I have some more questions for you about your journey to this moment.”
Teri lost track of the rest of the conversation at that point. She may have relayed more than she would have liked about the run-in she’d had with her principal at her former school, and the ridiculous email demands she used to get from some of her student's parents. All while the camera rolled. Whatever. Li would obviously make her look good in the edit; they were friends. The thought made her grin.
When she stumbled into her bunkbed that night (it really was uncomfortable, she conceded in fairness to GRACE), she reminded herself to be more careful about the booze tomorrow. And Mark, the creep. (The very attractive creep.) She pulled out her phone one last time and hit like on all her comments. Her follower count continued to climb, and even Janice seemed incapable of calming down.
Teri fell asleep with Janice curled up at her side shortly after her phone battery died at 3 am, and dreamed she was flying in the stars.
When she woke up the next morning, Teri felt like death. It didn’t help that breakfast was on the meager side of questionable, and there was a long line for the showers in the open-air bathroom shack. Too long for her to get through if she wanted to get to the Education Team meeting in time. So all in all, it wasn’t the best way to start her work with the Education Team—not that she was going to be a leader, she chastised herself as she tried to wash up in the ancient sink as quickly as possible. Janice was barking impatiently outside for breakfast.
She wasn’t the only straggler in the bathroom, though. Teri smiled reflexively at the woman with the icy-blonde hair and baby from the bonfire in the next sink over, who didn’t notice; she looked like she’d barely slept the night before. Teri sighed and then burped, momentarily grateful she didn’t have a baby, and then looked at herself hard in the mirror. As awful as she felt, she was also determined not to be a wallflower anymore.
On her way out, she said hi to the woman with the baby, perhaps a little more aggressively than necessary. The woman ignored her once again, but whatever. She’d done the right thing, and that’s what was important.
Five minutes later, Teri paused to let Janice eat a can of food—a special, secret treat from Li that she’d found in her bunk bed that morning, much to her delight—and pee in front of the cabin where the team was meeting. But Teri tried not to get caught up in front of what that can of food meant. Instead, she touched the piece of paper she scrawled right before leaving for the retreat, pregnant with the three ideas she had so far for this education team:
1. Trauma-informed, student-centered curriculum rooted in their diverse, lived experiences.
2. Make math a universally accessible anti-racist language of justice.
3. No more profit-driven standardized tests.
They weren’t new ideas, per se, and she was still wrapping her head around the practical applications. But she expected the other, more experienced members of the Education Team would help her sort her/their goals out and make it fresh—surely? Sometimes being radical didn’t mean being the thought leader, right? Definitely not. They had about a week to get a new, radical school system up and running, according to Li’s guidelines, and teamwork was going to be key.
Teri entered the meeting room with shivers of excited nerves (and nausea) but was brought up short when she spotted the documentary film cameras. Janice seemed to read her mind. Teri yanked Janice’s leash as soon as the dog lunged for the boom mic and then the lead camera person’s leg in excitement, but it was too late. All hell broke loose. Janice was jumping on people, and people were screaming while Teri tried to apologize as quietly but honestly as possible. Someone called her a bitch—or were they talking about Janice? All in front of the rolling cameras. Teri had never felt a stronger desire to be invisible.
It took a good few minutes to subdue Janice and drag her away from the cameras, but Teri eventually wrestled her to a corner where Teri sat down gingerly on the floor, cheeks bright red and stomach-churning acid from making such a spectacle. Well, and the booze. She really needed more booze. Or … the possibility of getting up and going home once again flitted through her head.
But an unfamiliar woman popped up and startled the room into a tense silence. “Good morning, fellow educators!”
“Good morning!” The room chanted back automatically, Teri included, of course.
The team had taken over the small vestibule in the front of the men’s dormitory cabin that sat behind the bathroom shack and parking lot; it was apparently one of the more coveted spaces, though the carpet was inexplicably moist.
The woman speaking at the center of the circle seemed to be well known in the rest of the group but was wholly unfamiliar to Teri, not to mention inscrutable in her mask. She had dark black curly hair and giant glasses that obscured her face above the N95; was she white, Latina, Filipina? Teri’s eyes drifted over to the three Black women huddling together in the back of the room, who had the cameras pointed in their direction, and she couldn’t help noticing that they also looked skeptical. Teri felt a little smug and loosened up a little.
Nonetheless, the dark-haired woman who’d stood up spoke again, stepping closer to the cameras. “Now. We’re not going to act like fools like those housing people last night, are we?”
“You tell it, Angie.” Inexplicably, the man speaking was Mark, the man who had accosted her last night. Teri went even more still as he shut the door behind him and looked around for a seat. He was a teacher?! Was radical giver a new term for teacher?! Had he seen her tweets?!
He sat down directly parallel to Teri, patting his leg to lure Janice while he pumped his fist in the air for Angie longer than social conventions would call normal. Teri bristled and frowned at a delighted Janice. He was no doubt making fun of her again. Teri yanked Janice’s leash to keep her from bolting to the creep and smiled at the group in pre-emptive apology as Janice whined in protest.
No one smiled back, and someone muttered “bitch” again.
Angie stepped towards the cameras and continued, ignoring the drama. “As I was saying, Li needs to be paying us extra to attend those meetings going forward as far as I’m concerned, if they’re going to be some Jerry Springer circle jerk, ya hear me? Now, we’re supposed to somehow get a whole school system for 50 kids up and running within a week. I know we all came here with big dreams, but Li can go fuck himself if he thinks it’s possible to do the kind of hard work teachers do before a classroom even opens, and all in a week. On the money they offered?! Who’s with me, right?”
There was a lot of appreciative clapping in the room, and Teri was confused. The money was pretty great, actually, at least for Teri? Should she raise her hand and make sure they were all getting the same amount? She should, right? But oh god, the awkwardness …. Teri stuck her hand in Janice’s fur, at war with herself. The echoes of the word “bitch” sounded in her ears.
Angie tilted her head and acknowledged the applause, then picked up a packet of collated papers, in a whole different world from Teri’s anxiety. “So, let’s start with the most experienced among us on ideas for working condition demands and curriculum and then go around by seniority. I’ve broken down the number of pupils by grade level and our expected per pupil funding level compared to better-funded districts around the country on the handouts going around.”
She had handouts? They were using a seniority system? Demands? Teri finally raised her hand (albeit not very high), ignoring the roaring ache in her head. Something was really, really wrong; she had to speak up. “I’m sorry, what?”
“You going to bring that bitch to every meeting?” Was Angie’s only response. The woman pointedly pushed Janice away from her with the sharp point of her shiny, plasticky boot.
The anger at someone kicking Janice was enough to crack Teri’s reserve; though she sat on her hands to keep them from shaking. “Why, yes, I am. Uh, hi everyone. I’m Teri, a public school teacher from San Francisco and I’m so honored to be working with you all! Wow, I want to give so much appreciation to Angie for doing all this work already.” Teri carefully extracted her hands and made shaky jazz hands in silent appreciation, willing her voice not to give out or her lack of sincerity to shine through. Please. Please. Please.
A few people spirit-fingered back, including Mark. Not many, though.
Teri dug her left hand into Janice’s soft fur and spoke quickly, cutting off Angie before she could jump back in. “And I want to ask whether we can also hold space to talk about our visions for a radical education system for these precious kids?” Her voice petered out. “Like, does that make sense?”
She so hated herself.
“What’s radical is finally getting paid.” A woman shot at her from across the cramped room. She was wearing an N95, like a good number of people in the group and camp and Teri felt a flash of embarrassment and guilt for not wearing hers, too. “You’re young and probably think the money Li gave you is good, but do you really think they’re compensating us the same as the doctors and tech people here?”
Teri shifted uncomfortably, and dug her fingers deeper into Janice’s soft neck fur until the dog yelped. Lots of other people in the room were nodding, and not with her. It was true she appeared to be one of the youngest people in the room, but surely salary bargaining didn’t have to be all they worked on today? Angie pointed her boot at Janice’s soft body again, and that was enough to get Teri talking.
“Of course not, of course you’re right! I absolutely want to lift up what you’re saying, uh—and Angie’s work. And I’m hoping we can also share our hopes and dreams? I’m sure we’re all brimming with ideas for radical curriculum and cohort groupings? Maybe?” She hadn’t meant to make the last two sentences a question, and how pathetic was that? But still, she had a point, right? She glanced at the Black educators, hoping they’d chime in. One of them smiled at her, maybe? It was so hard to tell through the masks. Teri picked at the top of her red LL Bean hoodie to inch it from her chest over her chin.
Mark’s voice was so loud when he cheered the worst possible response. “Yes! I vote Teri for team leader!”
Janice barked in agreement, wiggled out of Teri’s grip, and leaped over to him, tail wagging.
It was literally the worst thing he could have said, the equivalent of a war declaration, and not at all what she’d been trying to say. Teri wanted to disappear. Not that she could. Angie was staring daggers at her now—or maybe the whole room was staring at Teri in censure; maybe she really would die here. Bitch, bitch. Teri’s hand itched for her phone and the universe to help her. She needed Li.
Unfortunately/fortunately, just then one of the teen girls at the retreat slunk into the room to ask for help with a baby that wouldn’t stop crying and looked a little feverish. There were no childcare professionals in the camp for some reason, and so, after a lot of grumbling and pointed looks at the stone-faced education team at dinner yesterday, the parents had asked the teens to look after the younger kids until the schools were up and running next week.
Teri was annoyed at the girl’s intrusion but was intrigued—excited to an embarrassing extent, really—to see a worn copy of a familiar book on the math of fractals sticking out of the girl’s back pocket. Teri had written impassioned letters to the state government (through an anonymous “Contact Us!” form) during the pandemic to ask that fractals, which were the elegant math underlying a huge amount of African culture and math, be added to the Common Core curriculum—unsuccessfully. This book had been one of her recommendations! Teri was suddenly dying to ask the girl what she’d learned.
Unfortunately, the willowy, white-blonde-haired woman who had ignored Teri in the bathroom barged in a moment later, accidentally whacking Janice with the door and stopping all conversation in the room dead. On closer inspection and bags under her eyes aside, Teri rather thought she looked like a PTA president at a newly gentrifying school, the kind that thought nothing of interrupting a meeting of fellow professionals, apparently. Or ignoring teachers.
“I’m so sorry everyone! I’m a doctor and was too busy helping a patient to respond when my daughter texted me for help.” The woman kissed the teen’s head, who recoiled from the public display of affection, and then the woman took the still-howling baby from her older daughter’s arms and felt the baby’s forehead. She had said the word “doctor” like it was “god.” A few people in the room tightened the fit on their top-layer masks.
“I’ll take care of this little terror,” the woman announced with a tight smile. “This is the school team, right?”
“The education group,” Mark corrected archly. Teri silently agreed but refused to look at Mark.
“Wonderful. I’m Phyra, by the way.” The woman rocked her baby and flashed an enormous smile at the group, like she was used to people liking her, probably coasting by on her good looks even if she was incredibly rude. What must that feel like?
Teri murmured an automatic hello back before she could stop herself, but the room was otherwise dead silent. Her word hung in the air like a stale fart.
Not that Phyra noticed. “It’s been so much work setting up the hospital today; I’m sure you understand. It’ll be so helpful once the school is open next week and we don’t have to worry about babysitting, too.”
The room tensed, as if for battle.
“We’re not your babysitters.” That was Angie. Teri was a little surprised to see her live streaming the conversation on her bright pink new-model iPhone, albeit still in the line of the documentary cameras.
Phyra again didn’t seem to notice. “Oh, you know what I mean. The kids need school, as we all learned in the pandemic, right? Anyway, I was hoping to talk to you all anyway. A bunch of parents are wondering who’s in charge of the curriculum. So, uh … is there someone we—I—can chat with about my daughter, Tay,” Phyra smiled coyly, “and her, uh, math curriculum?”
Teri automatically started to raise her hand and then thought better of it, slamming her hand down, but it didn’t go unnoticed. The room glared at her.
Undaunted, Phyra’s white blonde halo caught the light of a sunbeam and she positively glowed as the documentary cameras trained their full power on her rosy and exhausted face. She lowered her voice like she had a secret to tell and sought out Teri’s eyes; Tay rolled her eyes and tried to slink away. So the words seemed to hang in the air and reverberate when they came. “I don’t mean to brag, but she’s a little bit of a genius.”
Teri heard a teacher behind her sigh through her mask. “And so it begins.”
The rest of the morning team session also didn’t go the way Teri had hoped, though much to her shame, she ultimately had to agree with the iron-clad logic of Angie and the rest of her peers. Equal pay had to be the first priority of the group, with the caveat that they’d revisit the equitable definition of equal later in the day. Teri largely stayed silent and thumbed her phone. Except when no one else had, she reluctantly volunteered to meet with Tay’s mom, and all the other concerned parents, if necessary, to talk about math curriculum. Like a back-to-school night where you didn’t allow them to ask the questions, was how Angie had put it, not kindly. Teri sighed. Was it only 1 pm?
“You better not make her promises,” Angie added, cementing Teri’s suspicions that the older woman thought Teri was a total idiot.
Teri’s fingers itched for the release of Twitter, but Angie apparently beat her to it.
During the next morning's bathroom break, Angie posted the snippet of Phyra claiming that Tay was a genius and needed special curriculum, with some choice commentary that felt a little overblown to Teri, even by her own radical standards.
teacher angie is an EDUCATOR & cosmic radical bitch @AngieDistheexpertnotyou
A gifted program for your little yt wonder? Over my dead body. #listentoteachers #radicalequity
Teri stared at the post while she sat on the toilet taking a pee. She almost didn’t hear the two people’s footsteps as they entered the cement block that passed as a bathroom.
“I hope this meeting ends soon. I can’t believe other teachers were allowed to bring their dogs. I can’t stand dog people.” It was an unfamiliar woman’s voice.
“Well, she’s a math teacher, honey. They always think they’re so fucking special. You know they get paid higher than the rest of us in my district.” And Angie. The smell of her cigarette drifted over the bathroom stall into Teri’s nose.
Teri froze and tried to hide her feet and thanked the stars she’d left Janice tied up outside by the meeting cabin.
Angie’s friend laughed. “True. But I’m more worried about that parent's rights, PTA MAGA mom who blew in already. You think we’re going to have a problem here?”
Teri wanted to scream. That’s why she’d come to the retreat, too! Well, one of the reasons.
There was the sound of running water and the cigarette smoke dissipated. Angie coughed a few times before speaking. “Why do you already think I have her on the run on Twitter? If everyone closes ranks, even that god’s gift to yada yada math teacher, we’ll cut that shit off before it starts here.”
The door swung close and Teri held her breath for 10 more seconds until she was sure she was alone. And then panicked.
Was that true? Did everyone on the Education Team think she and other math teachers were spoiled and selfish? Had she gone too far in speaking up?
Teri swiped her phone open again and looked hard at Angie’s tweet—and couldn’t unsee what was staring her in the face. Math didn’t lie. Every single member of the Education Team had been tagged and hit like already, except her. It was hard then not to remember that no one asked Teri for her opinion or chose her for any of the ice-breaker partner exercises all morning after Phyra’s incursion. Teri’s eyes spasmed with stress.
Teri stood up abruptly and vomited into the toilet, conscious of how her bare butt likely made an undignified luminous moon in the stuffy bathroom air as she heaved. Janice barked across the parking lot and then growled, and that made Teri feel even sicker. Were even more people going to kick her dog? Her perfectly healthy dog. Had it been selfish to bring Janice? More importantly, how had the day gone so wrong? The camp? She didn’t even know if there’d be food for Janice at the dining hall.
Teri stared at the grimy back wall of the toilet stall and thought hard.
True, Angie’s tweet had been breathtakingly rude. Didn’t they need parents to work with them if this was going to succeed?
But didn’t they also need Angie, if she was in charge? Was Teri not aware of her own privilege?
Teri vomited some more. And then again until she felt empty. Being a radical was hard work, Teri admonished herself, staring at the brown chunky muck. Was she willing to do the hard work? Gritting her teeth, Teri flushed and forced herself to see things from Angie’s perspective. Math teachers were often fawned over at home because they were so hard to hire. And Phyra had been remarkably rude, barging into their meeting and demanding special curriculum. In fact, the woman had all but insinuated that the parents knew better than educators when it came to curriculum, hadn’t she? Teri bristled. Back at home, Cassie’s mom often liked to email her back at her old school with “ideas” on “better” curriculum she’d gotten from her parent listservs and Facebook groups and and and. The one time Teri forgot to respond to Cassie’s mom, the woman had actually organized a special presentation at the next PTA meeting with ideas on a math curriculum audit, from “experts,” only remembering to invite Teri at the last minute. Of course, none of the experts were teachers.
Yes, the teachers were the experts. It was education politics and truth 101. Angie had every right to try to get ahead of the bullshit before parents insisted on writing the curriculum here, too.
Teri pulled up her pants and whipped out her phone, feeling that delicious feeling she always got when she finally just cracked a hard proof. She hit like on Angie’s post, and for good measure, hit retweet and added, “Time for math teachers to speak up, too! #solidarity 🙌”
Angie eventually pinged the first like on her quote tweet, followed by Li and then Mark. Ugh, Mark.
Still, back at the meeting ten minutes later, Teri couldn’t help but notice that Mark and other teachers on the team started giving Janice treats and telling her she was a “good dog” as the afternoon wore on. The Black educators definitely smiled at her once, and Angie even asked her for her opinion once, albeit on the minor matter of how much to charge Li for the photocopies Angie had made before the start of camp. Compared to that morning, it felt like being asked on a date.
Teri crumpled up the little slip of paper in her pocket and shoved it low for now.
She tried not to smile as she got to work really radicalizing education with her new team.
By dinner time, Teri and the rest were fired up. They were going to demand equitable pay—CEO-level pay—and Teri was in charge of figuring out how to calculate all the other salary and benefits demands.
Teri lingered a little longer at the end as everyone filed out, trying to avoid Mark, who she could swear was angling to talk to her again, no doubt to ridicule her—or not? He kept volunteering her as an expert and asking her for her opinion in the meeting all afternoon like he really believed in her. It was unsettling and made no sense. So, she held back and scrolled through her phone feed. Thankfully, Mark eventually left and she was able to follow the rest of the group on the short stroll from the meeting cabin to the dining hall overlooking the long, wild beach that stretched from cliff to ocean cliff. Janice was desperate for food and a walk.
Unfortunately, Phyra was waiting for her at the dining room door.
“Hi, Teri! It’s me again! You’re one of the math teachers, right? I looked you up!” Phyra, still wearing the baby, was waving Teri’s Twitter profile on her glittery black rubber-encased phone, and Teri had the sinking feeling that she’d been waiting for her this whole time.
Had the whole Education Team walked by the woman already?
Teri stared at the woman as her mental image of Cassie’s mom slowly melded with Phyra’s sparkling blue eyes, unsure of what to do. Talk to her but don’t let her ask any questions. She’d gotten used to doing that by making her back-to-school nights pre-recorded videos like all the other teachers at the school, but how was she supposed to do that in a face-to-face conversation?
Her panic was interrupted by a loud smack to her right. Angie had banged her palm on the window of the dining cabin; she had her phone out and pointed at Teri and Phyra like she expected Teri to fail.
No. Teri couldn’t fail.
So, Teri did the most uncomfortable and most cowardly thing possible: she held her left hand over the warm phone in her pocket, waved and mouthed “sorry, can’t talk now” and kept walking past Phyra without stopping, wide eyes frozen in terror.
Her phone exploded with buzzes 30 seconds later and she dared not check to see what Angie had posted. She was all in now, anyway. She’d chosen her side.
When she stopped on the concrete mountain path that ran up the northern slopes behind the dining hall, Teri’s stomach churned with something like acid and exhilaration. She’d never blown off a parent like that before, no matter how badly she’d wanted to. It felt … amazing!
Where was Li? She needed to tell him.
While Janice sniffed, circled and relieved herself on some bushes, Teri laughed and whipped out her phone with unsteady hands. She had to hold onto this. She had been brave, right? Radical? She felt increasingly sure she had been brave.
She typed fast.
Teacher Teri is a Cosmic Radical @RadicalMathTeachgrr
Parents who insist their little geniuses shit rainbows. 🙄 A RADICAL education system has to be one where rich parents are no longer the denominator—or maybe not in the equation AT ALL, hmm folx? 🧐 #shouldytpeoplehavekids?
She giggled nervously as she hit post. Li—and Angie—would be so delighted.
Teri walked into the sparse dining hall crowd five minutes later feeling downright giddy; her post had already gotten 804 likes and 763 retweets, including everyone on the education team but one of the Black educators. A record for Teri and almost as much validation as Li’s soothing DMs over the winter.
Maybe she wouldn’t leave. Maybe she shouldn’t leave. Maybe these were her people, and they needed her. Her post had already gotten more likes than Angie’s.
As she stood in line for the once again surprisingly meager food offerings for her and Janice (the Food Team was apparently having some problems), she let her eyes wander over the crowd of Education Team people already eating and chatting in the seats the Gun Team had hoarded yesterday (they’d disappeared in the night, much to everyone’s shock). They had taken over the table for themselves, and Angie was laughing and waving at her with her phone raised, like a severed head.
Teri blushed and automatically raised her hand—and then stopped.
Teri’s eyes had snagged on Phyra at the relatively somber Medical & Wellness teams table on the other side of the room, near the Legal Reform Team; their area also had the most kids. She was looking at her phone while Tay fed the baby, and absently stabbing at the sad kale pile on her plate with a fork.
Teri’s good mood faltered. Had she pushed too hard?
The familiar panic set in.
Teri tried to shrink, but there was nowhere to go in the packed line, especially with Janice trying to sneak food from people’s trays. Sure enough, though, Phyra looked up and her eyes connected with Teri for a long moment. A very long moment in which Teri felt her whole body flush with discomfort and then shame and then rage. It was such an odd progression of feelings in such a short time. Still, and god did it kill her, Teri smiled reflexively.
But instead of smiling back or rising to talk, Phyra very, very—and oh so slowly—lifted up her phone and typed in Teri’s direction with one finger. Her middle, rigid, and deliberately positioned finger. Teri flinched.
Janice lunged for a bowl of beans just as Teri’s phone buzzed in her pocket and everyone in the room with their phone out turned to stare at her, including the Education Team. Mark even let out a weird yodel/laugh.
It was a tweet response from Phyra to Teri’s recent post (not Angie’s).
Dr. Phyra Beckdel, MD is a Cosmic Radical @doulaonamission
@RadicalMathTeachgrr No, a child-centered education system is one where all the shitty and mediocre teachers are no longer the denominator. Good teachers WANT to talk with parents about curriculum and differentiation. Or is that too RADICAL for you, 👏 “educators”👏? #grownuptalk #listentogoodteachers 🙌
Teri choked and stumbled.
The uncomfortable thing was that, of course Teri agreed. Well, on some level. It was absolute misery inheriting students who’d been taught by incompetent (or still learning?) teachers the year before (or every year before). But when she looked up and saw the looks on her team’s faces—Angie in particular, Mark looked weirdly excited—well, she also remembered how little time and money most teachers got to invest in professional development. Like was that their fault?! Did they get paid to invest in themselves? Did the school district help them in any way? No. The system was built for failure; it hated teachers. Plus then all the difficulties kids brought with them to school.
Something red and hot rang through her head and coated her eyes like a time wormhole made of slithering blood.
The hate and accusations that had been thrown at teachers all through the early pandemic years. For working harder than anyone. At Teri. At her dad—who had died because of asshole parents like Phyra who refused to listen to teachers! How fucking dare this woman?!
“Bitch!” The word felt so transgressive. Teri immediately slapped her hand over her mouth and tried to flee.
But it was too late.
“How dare she, am I right? How dare she?” Angie bellowed across the room at Phyra’s retreating back as she left the cafeteria with her family instead of Teri; Tay looked like she wanted to disappear. “But you can’t run from my Twitter feed, bitch! Bitch!”
A kid started crying and Teri was abruptly firmly back in the present.
She glanced down at her phone and blinked, paralyzed. She needed to get out of there. But her screen was lit up like Halloween. What in the world?
Teri scrolled through her mentions and all her new followers and whispered again even as the wailing in the background became unbearable. “Seriously, what in the world?!” Phyra was getting ratioed like crazy.
Oh my god, Phyra was getting ratioed! And Teri had stood up to her in person (not Angie)!
Teri stared at her phone in wonder and then up as two pairs of hands reached around her shoulders in solidarity and claiming. The touch ricocheted through her blood and seemed to hum in her bones. It was Mark—and Angie.
Mark’s voice was hot in her ear, so much louder than the crying. “What did you just start, you little genius?”
During Teri’s nightly one-on-one interview that evening with Li, Teri was giddy, and a little nervous.
Teri patted Janice’s head absently as she stared at Li’s impressively smooth brown face glowing in the camera lights and settled onto a log on the cozier end of the beach, tingly with alcohol from the post-dinner reception (surely it was OK to have one glass to celebrate such a big personal milestone). The Education Team had gotten a little rowdy at the reception, and Teri had been right at the center, hyper-aware of Mark, despite her better judgment. Genius. She sat up a little straighter on her log, eyeing the couple that had just lain down on the beach 20 feet away to have sex, trying not to give away her shock and discomfort. No doubt the Pleasure Team. Teri only wished she was that bold.
Wait, she did?
Li’s voice was smooth balm. “Teri, how do you feel about not being the natural leader of the Education Team? Angie seems to have a much different focus than you, hmm?”
Teri took a swig of wine (eh, she’d go cold turkey tomorrow) and waved her finger at Li in censure, and laughed. He wasn’t going to get her to talk dirt about Angie. Even if she and Li were practically best friends; he’d given Janice another special can of dog food that night.
“Li, if the Education Team demands equal pay with the rest of the members of the camp, will you and the rest of the Foundation comply?”
Li nodded, apparently expecting the question. “It is the policy of the Institute to bring all questions about pay to the full camp. We do whatever the group decides.” He leaned forward, and grasped her hands (and wine flute) in his; Teri shivered. “But are you at all worried about Phyra developing alliances with other teams that might harm the Education Team when it comes time to vote? I heard what happened at dinner tonight.”
Teri blanched and swallowed a sick burp. She hadn’t really thought about that. Her tweet had twice as many likes as Phyra’s, but still, she trembled every time she saw a white-blonde head now. Ugh, why was she such a mess? “Is that likely? Like, did she say something?”
“Oh, of course not, but—I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be saying this. I’m sure I’m misinterpreting her actions and she’ll approach you directly to work things out. I’m sorry I even brought it up. You should fire me, hmm?” Li smiled, winked and took a long sip of whatever was in his hip flask. It looked warm and delicious and Teri leaned in instinctively.
“What did you see, Li?”
“I’m sorry, love. I really shouldn’t get involved. It’s against Institute policy. Listen to me being a gossipy old bitch instead of doing my job.”
“Please, Li! You have to tell me!”
Li stared at her for a long beat and then seemed to decide something; his gaze was so penetrating. He leaned forward, too, and took her hands again. Teri marveled at their strange warmth and texture; they felt … tacky? Teri blinked the thought away and focused on how happy she felt—how beautifully happy to be here with her friend. Cheers to them!
Li’s voice was a stage whisper. The cameras were still on. “Okay, okay. Sometimes I just care about you too much. So, here’s what I can say, just between us: What’s the one thing you can’t live without?”
Teri almost said math, but then she glanced down at Janice, who was chewing on a rotting fish carcass she’d seized from the surf. Teri’s head was starting to feel blurry, which helped soothe the embarrassment at being so slow at this kind of stuff, despite Mark’s praise. “Uh … food?”
Li nodded and raised his eyebrows in expectation. “So?”
Teri felt even more embarrassed when she didn’t immediately get what he was saying and took another long sip of the wine to cover it. She stared up at the wide sky, blinking for a moment when the stars didn’t immediately come into focus. Why didn’t she get it?! She was a math major, not an idiot. Why wouldn’t the universe ever make things easy for her?! She could practically hear Li’s disappointment in her growing—and the glow of Mark’s compliment earlier that day fade—until she couldn’t breathe.
There was a ringing sound in the sky, and then it was like a whole world of radical strategy cracked open inside Teri’s feverish brain. Like she could suddenly see the fractal in the system. The tiniest, most radical pattern. This was a contest for resources and support now.
“Oh! The Education Team needs to make alliances with the Food Team!”
“And uh, other essential workers?”
Li slapped his leg in delight, glancing pointedly down the beach at the writhing couple, one of whom looked a lot like Mark, Teri finally realized. “By the way, did you hear that Mark has moved in with the pleasure activists? He’s telling everyone there he can make their multiplication logarithmic.” Li’s body convulsed with laughter. “The humanity, amirite?!” A startlingly large tear leaked down his face.
Teri was distracted from Li’s last sentence by an inexplicable ringing in the air. Like music in a planetarium show, followed uncomfortably close by the sound of Mark’s massive orgasm. Seriously, was that normal? It hurt her ears—literal pain, and she doubled over. Thankfully, Li caught her just in time, her best friends and his amazing, warm hands. His eyes … She leaned in for a kiss, but accidentally knocked her nose against Li’s forehead and Li just stared at her in silence, completely unmoved. Had she read him wrong?
When she sat back up, bright red with embarrassment, everything that had felt so available to Teri a moment ago disappeared. She wasn’t a radical or a genius. She was a total idiot.
Teri went to bed angry at herself.
Unfortunately, GRACE was live streaming themselves (again) loudly having sex with someone in the middle of the long row of bunks of the all-genders cabin, which made it hard to sleep it off. Teri had wanted to say something the first night but had felt too uncomfortable. Tonight, though, she just really needed to sleep and forget that she’d just tried to kiss Li.
So she dragged herself out of the hard wooden bunk and got up to ask the woman to keep it down; she’d be as nice as possible about it. But she paused when she saw Phyra, of all people, bent over the lower bunk where the noises had come from making angry whisper noises. In fact, Phyra sounded to be in the midst of a heated argument with GRACE, about exactly what Teri had planned to say. “Too loud! Scaring the children!”
Phyra turned and glowered at the sight of Teri, and then laughed; Teri jumped in fright and Janice barked. “Have you come to apologize for your tweet, or are you having trouble sleeping with this racket, too?”
“I’m—” Before she could figure out how to respond, the face of the woman in GRACE’s arms came into focus. It was Pia, the leader of the Food Team.
“What?” Pia’s voice was lower and harsher than Teri expected from such an elfin woman. “Are you actually agreeing with this bitch now?” Pia, always so kind on Twitter so far, was staring at Teri like she had caught her ordering delivery on Door Dash. Li’s warning about the importance of the alliance with the Food Team rang in her ears.
Teri flushed. “I’m, uh, not against pleasure.” She really didn’t mean to, but she accidentally put more emphasis on the “I’m” than she’d intended.
Phyra snorted and stepped closer to Teri. “Well, I’m not anti-pleasure either! I brought my vibrator and a box of condoms with me.” She shouted the word “me.” She seemed to struggle to bring her voice back to a normal volume and control her rage as she turned back to Pia and the Pleasure Activist; Teri couldn’t help but notice that the bags under her eyes were even deeper since earlier in the week. “But I am pro-sleep, particularly for my kids. I know you don’t have kids, but I’d hope that you’d try to understand.” Emphasis on the you’s.
Teri stared at her in honest confusion. “What? So like just because you’re a mom means you have a monopoly on caring for kids?!” Teri was flabbergasted. “Jesus, I’m—I’m—a teacher!”
A few people had begun to raise their phones, and Teri wanted so badly to walk away. But the idea of letting down Li, and her team, frightened her so bad. She had to redeem herself about her fuck up with Li. “No one cares about kids more than teachers!”
Phyra sighed. “That’s not what I’m—god, can we not right now? You can’t sleep either, Teri. Admit it.” She cut Teri off before she could interject. “No, you don’t have to like me. You don’t even have to apologize for your tweet earlier. You just have to care that the kids need sleep. Can’t you people, just like, center the kids for a moment?”
Can she center kids? Teri’s body shook with all the anger of the very long day and went back into that bloody time wormhole. “Selfish teachers,” “Lazy teachers,” “Overpaid.” She wasn’t sure if she was going to poop her pants with diarrheal rage or a scream.
Pia looked at her in alarm. “Oh my god, are you okay? Look, Teri, if it’s really bothering you, we can stop. Like …”
Teri couldn’t speak. Some fights began to break out around the cabin and Janice was barking. She couldn’t shit herself in front of all these people!
“Teri?” Pia again.
Teri stilled her shaking hands and clenched her butt cheeks, willing herself to be fully in the present. “No, it’s fine.” She knew she sounded constipated now. “I was just getting up to make sure Phyra wasn’t bothering you, Pia.”
She needed to get out of there—immediately—and find a bathroom. She needed not to do something rash.
The smile on Pia’s round face spread slowly. “Solidarity, sister.” Pia raised her petite fist in salute.
Teri’s chest spread with an unexpected warmth and she unclenched a bit. “Solidarity.”
She heard an enormous huff and turned to Phyra, who had her horrible wailing baby in her arms again.
“Classic. But if you don’t quiet down, I’ll bring it up formally at the bonfire on Friday.” Her voice was laced with sarcasm. “Solidarity, sisters.” Phyra raised a mocking fist and turned towards all the phones lighting up the dim cabin, apparently all thoughts about keeping it quiet for the kids forgotten. She lowered her tank strap to feed her screaming ball of baby flesh. “Real feminists know that mothers can only take so much, right?” Emphasis on “real.”
Teri turned her back and walked to the cabin door as people slowly raised their fists in salute to her and Pia, one strangely aware step after another, feeling like the movie of her life had just gone live on Netflix. One foot, two, five, 17 …
Phyra shouted at her back. “You’re digging your own team’s grave, Teri! You’ll lose every time.”
Teri almost tripped out the door into the cool night and to the bathroom; the shaking wouldn’t stop. What had just happened? Never had a bowel movement brought such mixed emotions.
It’s not like she was happy about all this conflict, of course, but Teri’s team was counting on her. Surely Pia would quiet down anyway so they could all sleep? (She and GRACE were, in fact, twice as loud.)
Besides, how bad could the bonfire ceremony be?
Pretty bad. Phyra and a cadre of other mothers with young kids from the Medical and Legal teams didn’t even wait for Li to finish his introductions at the second week Friday night bonfire before lodging formal complaints against Teri, Pia, and GRACE.
“Li, I want to demand that we set up some sort of community accountability and dispute resolution system.” Phyra stood by the bonfire with her baby strapped to her front and a few other moms and dads arrayed uncomfortably behind her. They looked like they were members of the Wellness team, and Teri couldn’t help but feel automatically contemptuous and then a little guilty at her easy hate and then kind of factual. Everyone knew that wellness was just a palliative drug that made people think they were the problem, instead of society. Teri had been burned so many times by products she ordered off Instagram during the beginning of the pandemic.
“I respect the Legal Team for focusing on rethinking the foundations of the justice system right now, but I’m formally asking them to also please devise a system to police behavior that violates community norms.”
The reaction was immediate from almost everyone. The camp exploded. “No police!” “Fuck the police!”
Phyra looked genuinely startled. She had to shout to be heard. “I never said a police force!”
A red-haired woman from the legal team stood up and stalked to the center of the fire, bright splotchy, and spitting (though still remarkably beautiful for a lawyer, Teri couldn’t help notice). “Clearly, you meant police, though. How are you even allowed to be part of this group right now? Oh my god, I can’t even. Li, like, can we expel people?”
Much to everyone’s disappointment, including Teri, Li simply raised his eyebrows and gestured vaguely. His silence hung in the air for a long moment before he spoke. “What a milestone for this group: the first proposal. Or, well, the second. We still haven’t resolved the issue of better sleeping accommodations, have we? Housing Team, any solutions, hmm? Has the departure of the Gun Team and fissure of the Disability Team and departure of the Deaf Activists Team changed things?”
What? Teri tried to absorb this news of the latest team drama—why had the Disability Team split and why did no one still know where the Gun Reform Team had gone?!—while the Housing Team to a person crossed their arms and looked off to the side, anywhere but at each other or Li.
Angie snorted from the log in front of Teri, startling her. “What did I tell you?” Her voice was directed at the cameras.
Li swiveled and turned to the Education Team, passing over Angie to lock eyes with Teri for a long second, sending chills down her spine. This was all so real. “And I understand that we have a second proposal tonight, from the Education Team?”
Angie cleared her throat, preparing to stand and Teri leaned in towards Li and the drama, practically vibrating with anticipation; so real. The sky was a soft black and the stars were crystal clear, no fog in sight despite the usually ferocious April winds.
Unfortunately, Li seemed to misunderstand the movement. “I understand that this proposal has to do with numbers, so why don’t we ask our two math teachers, Teri and Mark, to come forward to make their case?
Teri blanched and tried to shrink; her body shook from the switch from adrenaline to fear.“No, Angie is going to speak for us.” But there was something strange about the acoustic at the bonfire. It was like Teri’s voice got sucked into a vacuum. Even Angie, who was sitting two feet in front of her, acted like Teri was mute. Angie jabbed at her phone, and Teri heard a pinging sound from Mark’s pocket and the rest of the Education Team’s but not hers.
Oh no. This wasn’t happening again. No, no, no.
Li started clapping. “Let’s hear it for Teri and Mark!”
The whole camp, reluctantly, save maybe Pia and the people who’d already slept with Mark, clapped along. Angie did not. Phyra most certainly did not.
Teri wanted to die. She wasn’t ready for this. She was making progress, but she wasn’t ready for speaking in front of the whole camp and the cameras.
But Li’s expectant face was like a tractor beam. How could she say no?
Teri got to her feet and slowly made her way to the front of the bonfire, unable to deny her friend, not after almost ruining their friendship. She’d let Mark do all the talking, maybe, and try to fade into the background. Angie would understand—surely.
But when they got to the roaring flame, Mark put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her in front of him toward the camera crew. “Men have taken up the air in the room for too many centuries, so I’m going to let Teri speak,” he shouted across the camp, so strangely loud that Teri’s ear rang a little with the force.
One person clapped. Li again. Teri wanted to cry but knew she couldn’t. Instead, it was Teri, alone in front of the bonfire, feeling naked.
She blinked and tried to focus on Tay’s face. She was here for the kids, after all, wasn’t she? She glanced at Li and then back at Tay.
Still, her voice was tiny and bourgeois with her flat, suburban Chicago vowels. “Well, the Education Team wants to propose—and big thanks especially to our leader, Angie!”
Angie just glared back at her. Someone coughed, and Teri felt like running into the waves and never coming back. God, couldn’t she just tweet the proposal? Teri glanced at Li and then at Tay again for strength. The girl was staring at her in fascination.
Teri tried again, pretending she was just in her classroom. “So, like, on Twitter you know how everyone talks about how important education is? Backbone of an equitable society, etc? How many of you like posts on Twitter when someone says something like that?”
Mark practically jumped up and down raising his hand behind her (rubbing his bare chest against her arm, she couldn’t help but notice), and a few other people joined him. Janice also chose that moment to run over from where she’d been sleeping to tackle Mark with licks. A few people laughed and a good three-quarters of the group took out their phones to take pictures for Twitter. The sea of cameras blinded Teri for a moment.
Teri plowed on, pretending again that this was her classroom. “Well, we’re just, you know, asking you to prove it. Put your money where your mouth is. Pay us the same amount as the doctors and lawyers and tech people in this group! You know, if you really think education is so important.” Teri noticed that the audience had returned to staring down at their phones. Angie was frowning and rolling her eyes while trying to angle herself back in front of the bright cameras. Teri was losing them. Someone laughed. She recognized that obnoxiously perfect laugh.
A flash of white-blonde hair caught her eyes, and Teri slowly turned as a deep thing writhed within her. “What, don’t you think education is that important, Phyra?”
Teri heard a few people suck in breaths of surprise and delight, all eyes back on her. All the cameras snapped back up.
Phyra refused to respond and just shook her head in exasperation, looking at Li.
“I said, do you think education is important, Phyra? Or just for some kids?” Now Teri’s voice sounded incredibly loud.
Phyra sprang to her feet in anger, flinging her arms wide at the crowd as her baby bounced violently on her chest. The cameras zeroed in. “Of course it’s important—for all kids. But just to be clear, are you literally saying you’re going to go on strike if we don’t raise your salaries to match people who got much higher levels of education and training?”
And then the Education Team was on their feet, shouting. Angie’s voice rang the loudest. “You damn right we are! Fund our schools, bitch! STRIKE!”
“Fuck yeah, it’s a strike!” “Fund our schools now or STRIKE!”
Teri stumbled slightly. They were? No one had mentioned a strike before. How had she missed that? A strike?
Li stepped in just then, clapping his hands to silence the shouting. The camp was early quiet. “So, Phyra, you’re saying that you are not in support of fully funding the school system?”
Phyra started to snap back about being misunderstood, but Pia, the red-haired woman from the Legal Team who had been so incensed before with Phyra’s community court proposal, and GRACE all ran forward like some sort of strike team. They held their phones up at Phyra like a cross to a vampire.
Their question was so damning, that it rang across the stars like thunder, dwarfing even Teri’s sound from a moment ago. It was the woman from the Legal Team. “Let me guess, you’re proposing that money goes to the police instead, Phyra?”
And that’s when the camp really exploded.
During the bonfire after-party that night, where the champagne tasted like liquid stardust and Teri’s body felt like it could move planets, Teri would have liked to dance a little, though she physically couldn’t. Angie had taken her bare upper arm in her hand as soon as the official bonfire adjourned and paraded Teri around the party like a mother jackal, loudly shit-talking Phyra and the other “entitled parents” in the camp through her two masks. Teri tried to find a way to disentangle herself without offending Angie, and maybe add some nuance to the name calling; education was a home-school partnership after all, right? Not all the parents were as terrible as Phyra—probably? But Angie, who was the only one of them not drinking, would not be deterred, and the night wore on. And on.
So an hour later, Teri practically jumped for joy when Mark came up behind them with Janice and kissed Angie and then Teri on the cheek, and Angie finally let go of her arm in favor of squeezing his taut butt cheeks like she was testing melons and then moving along to some other targets. Mark’s lips felt like hot velvet, and Teri let herself drift over to the fire with him, letting her eyes drift across the party for Li. They needed to talk about everything that had happened.
Mark stepped closer. “Can I finally give you some of my deep math, my little shit giver?” Mark kissed Teri on the cheek again.
Teri’s eyes found Li talking to Phyra on the far side of the fire. Li was bouncing her baby up and down while Phyra laughed and leaned close.
Teri—and she could kick herself about this later—almost said yes to Mark, but then she noticed that all his focus was on Phyra, too.
“Look at her, huh? She’s hot and all that, but can you believe she thought she could win this game?” Mark rubbed his hand absently on Teri’s arm and she shuddered involuntarily and tried to pretend she hadn’t; his skin felt just like Li’s, only repulsive. Mark was staring at her now and she blushed angrily, remembering the sound of him orgasming on the beach. “Conflict makes me so horny. This game is even better than I hoped. You know what I mean?”
Teri wanted to vomit.
“Oh, she doesn’t want to fuck you, Mark.” It was Angie again. She’d snuck up on them and grabbed Teri’s arm again, yanking her hard. “Look at her.”
Mark ignored Angie and leaned into Teri’s left ear.
“She doesn’t know how much you resent her, does she? Should I tell her?”
Some of that bravado from the bonfire crept back in Teri. “This isn’t a game, Mark. Children’s educations are at stake.”
Mark stepped so close that Teri could feel the shocking heat radiating from his skin. “Yes, but so much more, Teri, right?”
Wait, what were they talking about? Were they flirting?! She gulped a glass of champagne.
Angie nodded in censure like she could read Teri’s mind and yanked Teri’s arm to pull her to her again. Teri bristled. She might not be the smoothest with personal stuff, but she was certainly radical enough to know not to get pulled into a hot guy tractor beam. Even if she was drunk, and maybe a little lonely. And horny, too.
Fine yes, and horny.
“So, hey, will you film me while I really confront her?” Mark threw his phone at Angie with a wink and stalked off toward Phyra, leaving Teri feeling cold and like an even bigger fool.
What was he doing? Hadn’t what Teri said during the bonfire meeting been enough? Maybe more than enough? Phyra was openly crying now while Li continued to rock her baby, waving her phone in Li’s face like it was proof. Li hugged her and Teri felt a pang of discomfort; had Tay seen the whole thing? A ringing started in Teri’s ears.
She idly wondered again if the girl had liked the book of fractals. The ringing got louder.
Tay. What had Tay thought of everything that had happened tonight?
Teri swallowed. She wasn’t like Mark or Angie. She was a good person. She was here for good reasons—for the kids—and she needed to remember this.
The radical path meant uncomfortable speeches at bonfires, yes, but also being willing to have more intimate uncomfortable conversations in order to move forward. To do the right thing for the kids. And respect teachers, above all else.
Teri vowed to apologize to Phyra later that week after things calmed down a little, and talk math with Tay. Maybe in DMs? Or in a private space where they could talk away from cameras? The idea made her sweat.
OK, so maybe after she first had some more champagne and checked her Twitter feed? Her phone had been buzzing non-stop in her pocket since the fight an hour ago and it felt almost as hot as Mark’s and Li’s hands.
Li’s kiss and Mark’s orgasm.
No, that was a distraction. She was a good person. She swigged some more champagne. She’d make everything right.
Phyra locked the Education and Food Teams out of the dorm cabins the next week.
Dr. Phyra Beckdel, MD is a Cosmic Radical @doulaonamission
If the #cosmicradical Education Team is going to deny kids their right to school, then they will lose their right to shelter. #dontfuckwithmoms #sweetdreamsbitches 🙌
Naturally, the Education and Food Teams took over the bathrooms in retaliation within 24 hours, and there was some talk of sending an emissary to the Gun Reform Team, who as it turned out, had set up their own camp in the former Nike Missile Site in the far southeastern hills. The new FED Alliance (Food & Education) let the kids in the bathroom, after they signed a strict behavior policy, of course. But no one else who aligned with Phyra. The dynamic in the camp had changed abruptly.
Thus, any likelihood of Teri and Phyra finding common ground slipped away as the nights grew abruptly colder, much colder than the usual May in the Bay Area. There was no way Teri was going to apologize to a woman who had just forced her to sleep in a makeshift shelter on the freezing cold beach. Many people were stuck in the same situation. So, though Li had let her sleep in his gloriously warm bed until someone on the Wellness Team had caught her and made a stink, and slipped her the occasional food for Janice, Teri’s—and everyone’s—mood was rapidly taking a turn for the worse.
In fact, after a couple of weeks of living like an unhoused person—and Teri felt terrible even thinking these words, however true—the only kind thoughts she could muster about Phyra was when she was taking a hot shower in the open-air bathroom shack. And even then, it was only that Phyra at least didn’t turn anyone away from the janky hospital when they came knocking. Teri could respect a fellow professional dedicated to her oath to serve. She, at least, was the bigger person here. Even if she was fucking freezing; a hot shower didn’t mean much when thein addition to all the usual nonsense, the windshield temperature was in the 40s.
Teri’s mind occasionally dwelled on the fact that there was no school for Teri to teach in thanks to the de facto strike, making her professional integrity theoretical. But she tried not to. Teri didn’t feel great about that fact, and her image of herself as a good person began to falter.
It didn’t help that the tweens and teens in the camp were growing more feral as the weeks slipped by … and then months. (It really was a marvel how time seemed to slip and slide at the camp.) The babysitting and home study days for the camp kids appeared to be completely over. No one had much Internet here, save Twitter, thanks to constant cyber war within the reclusive Tech Team, which had taken over the communications tower in the southern hills; they were currently at war over the ethics of uploading themselves to the cloud—someone had already tried, with critical results. So online learning wasn’t even an option. The situation made Teri a little ill when she let herself think about more than her frozen toes and empty stomach. Unfortunately, the Food Team also continued to struggle.
It was miserable.
Sometimes she would sit on the main beach all day trying to calculate the sin curves of ocean waves to distract from her hunger and negative thoughts, and watch the teens play some sort of long-form gladiator game Li arranged—presumably as some sort of well-intentioned enrichment camp? Teri tried to keep an open mind, even when she had to resort to eating raw, dead fish washed up on the beach; Li tried to sneak her hot meals as often as he could but the Land Team had begun following him everywhere demanding he formally return the land to its original inhabitants before the current owners could reclaim it, and it had become almost impossible for him to do anything remotely private. Even now, as he tried to keep the kids’ spirits up, there were people heckling him from the cliffs.
The more aggressive and popular kids competed in outlandish physical challenges on the impossible-to-access “teen beach” around a giant cliff, for a chance to win a portable gaming system or a bag of Pirates Booty. Teri not infrequently wished she could join, largely for the food.
But that wouldn’t be radical, as Angie kept saying. Shouting, really. It had become her de facto campaign slogan. Some days it seemed like Angie was planning a coup to seize control of the whole camp from Li or anyone else, and Teri didn’t know how to feel about that. Angie called anyone who disagreed with her positions a capitalist tool. Teri physically cowered whenever she remembered the one time she had expressed her concern to the other members of the Education Team about how far off they were from a truly radical education system and how little the kids had learned, sometime in late June. They’d been patrolling the bathrooms with her on their dawn shift, and she thought she could trust them; unlike Angie, who’d appropriated a cave somewhere, these teachers were also sleeping on the beach.
But Angie found out and laid into her at dinner (such as it was these days) in front of the whole team.“Teri, the kids are spending time with their families and learning more about other kinds of skills. Don’t you dare talk about ‘learning loss.’ That’s white supremacy nonsense. I thought you were an anti-racist educator, girl.” Emphasis on “girl.”
Team solidarity aside, Angie hated Teri, it was clear. And increasingly, Teri thought maybe she had good cause. What had Teri ever accomplished except going a little viral?
So, Teri grew increasingly bitter and jaded. On the really cold nights huddled up in the wind-protected clay grooves on the north side of the beach, she started to imagine how different things would be in the Education Team if she was in charge instead, or at least if Angie just disappeared—or maybe even died. Because realistically, would Angie ever go away if she weren’t dead? Such dark thoughts. But so palliative. Sometimes when the ringing in her head got especially loud, Teri could feel that radical reality dancing at the tips of her ice-cold, chapped fingers. Not that she told anyone she was hearing things. Or spoke any of these things out loud.
Instead, when the feeling got too big, it was easier to redirect her anger at Phyra and dream about maybe leaving—a lot of people had begun to talk about leaving. After all, this had clearly all started because of Phyra.
Teacher Teri is a Cosmic Radical @RadicalMathGrrrl
Real talk: @doulaonamission is a garbage human. Is she even fit to be a mother?! Or call herself a human? You can’t say you support education and then treat teachers this way! #literallyhomeless #equitynow
Her tweets always got record likes—for her. But her feed was nothing compared to Mark, of all people, and so Teri continued to feel hollow inside. Mark had twice the number of followers and though he was constantly retweeting everyone else in the camp—including occasionally Phyra, who kept going on and on about having to change diapers in the bushes, like anyone cared—that he never, ever liked Teri’s posts. It made zero sense. Her own follower number had long since plateaued.
She really should leave, and maybe just give up on life altogether, she finally decided sometime in June.
She’d failed—at everything.
“You seem down, Teri. Is it the sleeping on the beach thing? The food?” Li’s voice was soft on a Tuesday of their mid-June evening one-on-one. These conversations had become the only reason to get up in the morning; in fact, she and Janice spent as much time as possible with Li, for lack of any other comfort. Unfortunately, he could be maddeningly hard to find thanks to all the hiding from the Land Team.
“I never said I had a problem with the food! The food is delicious.” If meager, Teri added in her head—and occasionally poisonous. Still, there was no way she was going to get caught selling out the Education Team’s most important alliance for as long as she stayed in the camp; the other half of the FED Alliance was making noises about maybe letting the Education Team beach exiles sleep in the cafeteria. The sticking point was, unbelievably, Janice, according to Angie; no, that couldn’t be true. Teri took a sip of wine and tried to shake the cobwebs out of her head. And it didn’t matter anymore. She needed to tell Li she was leaving.
“The food is … passionate, and Janice certainly seems to be thriving. Should I stop bringing her food?” Li raised his eyebrows at Janice’s growing belly as the dog snored in the sand next to Teri’s bare feet. Teri blushed and hung her head. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell anyone that Li was showing favoritism by giving Janice food, which was why she was getting paunchy, but the Food Team seemed convinced that Janice’s growing belly was the result of her raiding the kitchen. One of Pia’s rivals for leader of the team had notably stopped retweeting her takedowns of Phyra this past Monday because of the rumor.
“No, she needs to eat,” Teri sighed. Teri dug her hand into Janice’s fur and took another long sip. This camp experiment wasn’t worth it anymore. She needed to tell him.
Li’s voice, even her dear friend, dug into her head like a fork. “OK, then, how do you feel about Phyra’s efforts to create an alliance for the Medical and Wellness Teams with the Housing and Justice teams?”
Teri rolled her eyes and yawned. What did it matter now? She was definitely going to leave—tomorrow. “It won’t work. Housing is dysfunctional and the Justice Team thinks she’s a cop.” But Teri tweeted Li’s gossip anyway, just in case, while Li watched.
Teri clutched her phone, steeling herself. “There’s something I need to tell you, Li.”
“Mark already told me, love. He was crying so hard. Want to see the tape?”
“Wait, what? Mark? Was crying about me leaving camp?” Teri glanced furtively at the camera people and then back at Li. “He talks about me during your interviews?”
“Leaving, hmmm. Speaking of which, did you hear Pia is thinking about defecting to the Pleasure Team?”
“Pia—what?!” Teri choked on her gulp of champagne. Pia had always been their strongest ally on the increasingly unstable Food Team (there was a fight about mushrooms and a beef with the Disability Justice Team on top of the disagreement about Janice). “You can’t do that. Just, like, change who you are. What team you’re on. I tried that—well, not the team part but you know what I mean—and I’m a total failure, obviously. So, I’m sorry but I think it’s time for me to leave, Li.”
Teri blinked and clutched at Janice while Li leaned in and took her hand to stroke. His skin was so, so strange. She shivered. He always held her hand just a little too long.
“Have you, though? Did you really change your basic human equation? I mean, what is your basic equation, in math terms? You know I always like it when you talk numbers, beautiful.” Li raised his eyebrows—suggestively?—and that strange ringing overwhelmed Teri’s ears for a second.
Her basic equation? It felt like it was essentially solving for zero these days. Leaving aside her friend, Li, who she knew in her heart had rebuffed all her attempts to be more, she was so incredibly lonely and miserable. In so many meanings of that word. Teri snorted and tried not to moan in pleasure over the heat that was building in her hand from this sad, random pity touch from Li. God, not even Phyra was this pathetic. Teri was worse than zero. She had to go.
She snapped her fingers for more champagne. “Yup, I took the radical of myself, Li, and it turns out I’m a negative integer. And not even a big one. I’m like a negative fraction of a fraction. No one would care if I changed my equation, because my essential self would remain, like, half of a roach leg. Utterly useless.” There’d been a lot of roaches in the dining hall this past month.
Li’s voice was a growl. “Get a grip, girl. Self-pity isn’t radical. You all are so close to becoming the true utopia you dreamed of; you just have to be willing to do the hard work. Who says you can’t become a positive integer? Or something else entirely?”
Teri squinted at him and ignored the rising pain of the ringing and an especially cold gust of wind. “But how? What, I just do the opposite of what I’ve been doing?”
“Well,” Li sat back and stared up at the sky so the light of the cameras was even brighter on Teri’s flushed face. His tone was steel. “Maybe start by saying yes to everything, just for one more day? Then you can decide whether you truly want to leave. Starting with tomorrow morning. I want you to come visit the hill colonies with me, OK, love? The only one of you from the low camps whoever goes up there is Phyra—well, and Mark, that horny foam—and someone else down here needs to understand what’s happening, too, if we’re going to build a radical community together. Plus, I get lonely on these solo trips. Say yes, please. Let me have you for one more day, my beautiful star.”
One more day, to say yes? Was that the opposite of what she’d been doing? Had she been unintentionally saying no to change? It didn’t feel like it, but then again, that had become the crux of the standoff with Phyra. Maybe she needed to say yes to the more trivial stuff in order to get to a deeper sense of yes? Did that even make sense? Teri’s head was so hot and heavy even though her body could not have been colder.
Ugh, what did it matter? One more fucking day in hell.
Teri shook her head and swayed a little. Fuck it. “Yes.”
How bad could the Deaf Activist and Gun Reform Team camps in the hills be?
The first thing she heard the next morning—a startlingly and blissfully hot morning after a particularly windy and foggy night spent drinking until she blacked out—was a group of teen boys laughing and shouting the filthiest language she’d ever heard in her life. And a weird rumor.
“You stay here at the camp and win the game, and you get $10 million fucking dollars, bruh! I shit you not!”
Which made no sense—none of it—because they were approaching the Deaf Activist hill colony and none of this was a game. Clearly. But Li only winked at her when she looked at him in confusion.
Wait, was there some sort of prize money?
Teri shook her head and tried to focus on where they were going. They had only just shaken Li’s Land Rights hecklers a few minutes before, and time was precious.
As Li had announced at bonfire in May, the Disability Team had fractured into two main subgroups; everyone else had left camp. The Deaf subteam, who were all in their 20s and strangely, wildly good-looking, had decided that they wanted nothing to do with Hearing society and decamped up to the hills to set up their own world, a half mile from the Gun Team’s bunker at the Nike Missile Silo in the southeastern hills; they were the only team that wasn’t unnerved by the increasingly frequent sounds of gunfire coming from the Gun camp.
Teri had felt uncomfortable about this development (and the gunfire—which boomed across the hills) at the time. But after a while, she was embarrassed to realize that it became more of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind concern. Admittedly, it didn’t help that the other main splinter group, the extremely gossipy Mobility subteam had taken over a large portion of the dining hall and spent their days loudly commenting on the bodies of anyone who dared walk in the front door—hence one of the beefs in the Food Team. Teri knew there was justice for them to flip the usual roles, of course, and tried to keep that in mind, but it still didn’t feel good to be called “alien-eyed Bambi” whenever she wanted to eat.
So, given that they were approaching the Deaf subteam camp at the flat top of one of the scrubby, rocky hills, Teri couldn’t comprehend why she was hearing teen boy voices yelling about—well, Teri was already blushing with discomfort. Those were some very nasty words. She turned to investigate, but Li grabbed her arm.
“I wouldn’t, Teri. Phyra and the other moms are already working on that particular problem. It’s complicated. Trust me, yes?”
Trust him about Phyra? Teri made to yank her arm out of his hand and tell the boys to stop shouting—those things—but then she remembered: she was supposed to say yes. For one more day. In this bright, hot sunlight.
Teri closed her eyes for a moment and tried to see the wisdom and absorb the glorious heat she’d missed so much. “OK, fine. Yes.”
“Very good. Now, I advise you to stay behind me and say and do nothing as we approach the Deaf Team’s camp. They have some demands I need to hear, but well, frankly, they have policies against Hearing-only visitors who they haven’t specifically invited, though I think you’ll get a lot out of this visit.” Li winked. “Please consider it a gift. My own way of saying yes.”
That was the last Teri heard of Li’s voice for a couple hours. As they approached the guarded entrance to the camp among a circle of wind-swept trees, Teri thought she understood why, and probably why he had winked; an especially embarrassing revelation. Everyone in camp was naked, and a good portion were having what Teri could only politely think of as a bacchanal. A totally silent bacchanal, minus the occasional grunt, slap of flesh, or animal cry further out in the hills. It was … extraordinary. Two of Li’s camera people were already on hand to record the orgy, which Teri couldn’t fathom, but the team seemed totally comfortable. In fact—she peered closer—perhaps they were even playing it up a little for the cameras? Dear god, there were a notable number of people in the camp also live streaming with their own phones.
The whole place reeked of sex. What did Li mean about this being a gift?
The ringing thundered through her head, and down all the way through her to her toes. She turned to ask Li but he seemed to melt from her side with one hot parting kiss on her cheek, and then she was alone in the crowd, not sure what to do. Her body felt completely unstable, overwhelmed by the kinetic energy after so many months of being frozen. A man walked up to her and signed something at her, but Teri didn’t know what to say back; she didn’t know ASL or even the most basic signs. He signed something that might be amused (?) to some friends and Teri was suddenly surrounded. She heard the teen boys in the woods off to the left scream, “they’re going to fuck you, alien!” and then break into raucous laughter.
Teri turned in their direction intending to find them and tell them that only the Mobility Team got to use that slur with her, but Li’s voice rang in her head. Say yes—one more day. And then the feel of unfamiliar hands. Warm, interesting hands, on her lonely skin.
The ringing was so strong. The feel of human hands on her body, after so long, even more so.
“Can I have a drink?” She sort of signed with her hands, in the way you might in a crowded bar.
That’s how it began.
She steered the group away from the teen boys and cameras, and into a sort of makeshift tarp that had been set up near a dead fire pit. The camp looked like some odd, Northern California version of Survivor; a few of the people were even wearing purple buffs that said, “DEAF AF.” She had another drink. And then she said yes. There was a lot of alcohol and she said yes more than a few times, in fact, though she tried to keep her clothes on. It was just so strangely hot in the tarp and hill camp—so different from the beach. What had Li meant? So hot and vibrating and …
A few hours later, familiar, tacky hands woke her from a confused, sticky sleep. There were bodies all around her, sleeping, too.
“Time to go, Teri. I hope you used a condom, by the way. There are some really nasty STDs going around this camp. Ready?”
Teri choked. Had she used a condom? “Yes?”
Li seemed unperturbed at her dull panic, staring around the mound of taut young flesh in the tarp. “I love it here, too. So primal, but so wise. What’s more human than unproductive sexual reproduction, right? Do you feel more human now, love? I thought you might. I wanted this so badly for you.”
Teri blushed again and tried to straighten her filthy clothes. Of course she’d used condoms. No doubt. “Yes?” He’d been trying to get her laid? Why? God, was she that obvious? She glanced to her right and stiffened; there were cameras on them. She absolutely had to remember to ask Li to edit out this scene.
Li grabbed her and pulled her tight against his bare chest, and she tried not to breathe. They were right in front of the cameras now, and the ringing had never been stronger in her ears. “Never forget, Teri: you are my star.” He kissed her again, this time on the lips, but it was so, so light and Teri had barely enough time to process the feeling before he pulled back. “Alright! On to the Gun Team! Is fear even more of a human primal instinct than fucking? I do wonder sometimes, hmmm? God, I love these talks we have, Teri.” Li smiled down at her, ran his hands up and down her disoriented body, and let her go.
What had just happened? Teri’s head spun and spun and spun.
She turned her back on the cameras and followed, but not without first registering the absolutely intoxicating smell of her best friend’s flesh.
Maybe she would stay a little longer?
The Gun Team was initially surprisingly boring after the orgastic joy of the Deaf camp, but the thought of leaving Li’s side made Teri abruptly ill. Besides, Janice had somehow found them during the short walk between camps and was running ahead of them towards the camp like a puppy.
She had questions. “Li, can we talk about what just happened?”
But they were interrupted. “Li, I know you’re packing. Where’s your no-carry permit, lady?” A man had dropped out of a tree right in front of them, 100 feet from the camp’s heavily fortified wood stake wall.
“Wait, what? Li, you carry a gun?” Teri had never seen a gun in person before, let alone on her friend.
Li wrapped his bare arm around Teri and reached into the pocket of his cargo pants; there was a surprisingly large handgun tucked into the pocket. Teri shivered and tried to tune out the persistent ringing while Janice barked and circled in front of the gate impatiently.
“Your permit, lady? You’re going to need to quiet that dog.” The Gun Team man was persistent, if menacing. It was hard to see him behind his hat and aviators. Was he Black? Something else? Teri had assumed everyone on the Gun Team was white and now felt terrible at her implicit racism.
“She doesn’t have a permit yet, Tim. How about she applies while we talk business?” Li’s voice had deepened considerably, Teri noticed. He was using the voice he used at bonfires, not their one-on-one conversations, and it made her shiver a little. “You need a permit not to carry a weapon in the Gun Camp.”
“To keep you safe,” Tim added.
“Yes, to keep you safe. OK, love?”
That made exactly no sense, but Teri restrained herself from pointing out the obvious, too caught up in thinking about what had just happened with Li. Janice really was going nuts about something inside the camp walls. Li’s hand had snuck back around her waist.
Li would keep her safe, and it looked like there was another set of camera people waiting for them near the entrance; surely no one would hurt anyone on camera. Li kissed her on the cheek again, this time lingering a little longer. The skin burned where his lips had been. Teri was so confused. And then she was alone again.
An hour later, Teri was still filling out paperwork to qualify for a permit to not carry a firearm in the camp, trying not to overanalyze that kiss, but unable to think of anything else. Since she also didn’t have a permit to carry a weapon, she’d been forced to fill out that paperwork, too, but there was a great deal of dispute about the correct paperwork and processes. All while Li was off with Tim, talking about god knows what—she really needed to talk to him about that kiss. And Janice kept barking and trying to get into a sealed shed in the middle of camp. Teri was increasingly hot and tired and just about to tell everyone she was done with this charade—she most certainly did not want a gun. The thought of introducing weapons into their beach camp made her shudder with fear. As much as she hated Phyra with every electron in her body, no good could come of that. None.
Teri stood from her log seat ready to leave and stopped at the sight of the group behind her. It was Tay and two other teen girls.
“Hi, uh, we’re uh here to apply for a permit? For a gun? We heard you, uh, lowered the age?” It was a blonde girl standing next to Tay. She looked to be about 17, at most.
Teri recoiled in shock. Was this some sort of sick joke? “Tay! What in the world are you doing? This isn’t safe!”
Tay glanced at the other girls and then stared at the ground. She thought one of them mutter something along the lines of “alien-eyes,” and Teri automatically bristled. “We uh, need guns, Ms. Um …”
“Ms. Marckamm. Your math teacher—to be. Of course you don’t need guns!” Teri looked around and saw more people approaching. Gun reform gun nuts. She needed to get these girls out of here. “We’re leaving—now!”
But the girls wouldn’t move, and a group of Gun Team women were on them, strapping more ammo than she’d seen in her life. “Of course they need to protect themselves. Haven’t you heard how those boys and men talk to these girls down at your camp?” It was a very petite woman wearing all pink, including a pink gun holder and handgun over her cheerleader shorts. She looked pissed.
Teri startled. “Wait, what? What do you mean?”
One of Tay’s friends was crying now, into the dirt of the ground. “They try to touch us and say—things. And we can’t leave.”
“Of course you can leave. But there also has to be a better way to deal with any men, or boys, who …” Teri couldn’t finish the thought. Every particle in her body reared up like a wave of vomit at the thought that she’d been so blind to what was going on to these girls. That she’d just been caught up in her own fucking and phantom romance. “OMG, is this happening to all the girls?”
“Mostly? Our parents already tried talking to Li and the Legal Team to get help, but they hate Tay’s mom, so, like, you know?”
Tay’s eyes wouldn’t make contact. “The men on the Legal Team are some of the worst. There’s kind of this judge …”
“So, what? Your mom just gave up? She didn’t do anything? And now you’re getting a gun?!” Teri’s righteous fury shook her like an earthquake—at Phyra, those men. Li had refused to help them?! No, they had to be confused about that. Truly, she felt like she might explode into a million bolts of lightning. “Come with me, NOW!”
But the girls wouldn’t move, and the lady in pink put her hand on her gun handle. “You’re going to want to lower your voice, ma’am, and step away from the victims.”
“I said, STEP AWAY FROM THE VICTIMS.” The woman had pulled out her gun and was pointing it directly at Teri.
Teri froze and then screamed. Janice had run into the camp, carrying what looked like a severed arm in her mouth.
One of the pink lady’s friends turned to shoot at her. “That’s not yours! How dare you?!”
“No, stop! Janice!” Teri sprinted across the clearing and lunged at her dog as the woman continued shooting, grabbing the dog just in time to avoid a well-aimed bullet, and then sprinted for the gate. “Tay, please! Come with me! I can keep you safe!” Teri screamed over her shoulder, cowering and zigzagging like she’d seen in movies. Was that even effective? Teri had no idea, but it seemed more prudent than doing what she really wanted to do, which was drop on the ground, curl up in a ball, and pee on herself until Li rescued her. A rush of shame flooded over her. He hadn’t helped them?
How could she have spent the afternoon like some lonely loser, getting a drunk pity (condomless?) fuck?
No more. If ever there was a time to be a good person, it was now. She was saying yes to Janice. And Tay, and that was it. Fuck Li. Teri ran in a dead sprint once she crossed through the gate, ignoring the way her feet were being cut to shreds in the dry sticks littering the ground across the blurry plateau. Janice was whining but refused to give up her arm. OMG, was it really a human arm? Teri needed to vomit. Immediately. She kept running, though, instead, swallowing back down the nasty—she knew exactly where she needed to go.
“What the fuck are you doing to Tay?! Did you know she’s up at the Gun Camp trying to get a firearm?! What kind of fucking monster are you to let your daughter get a gun?!” Teri slammed into the hospital tent and practically fell onto Phyra, who was sitting and breast-feeding her baby; the woman looked more exhausted than she’d ever seen a human look, but Teri was incapable of pity at the moment. “And what about those teen boys up by the Deaf Camp? Do you have any idea what they’re doing and saying up there all day? What kind of a parent lets these things happen?”
Phyra’s baby stopped suckling and turned to stare at Janice and her arm with wide blue eyes—and then started screaming. Very loudly. Phyra swore and a tear leaked down her face. “First of all, Teri, how dare you come in here and scare my baby with your dog eating a fucking human arm?! Like, I really thought I’d seen it all, but …”
“It’s not ours! I don’t—” Teri would of course get to the bottom of what that was all about, but it was beside the point at the moment, surely. There was probably a graveyard somewhere nearby or something. “Did you even hear what those boys were saying up there? Or your daughter?”
Phyra looked at her like she was out of her mind, and grabbed a scalpel from an operating tray next to her chair, wiping her tear savagely with the back of her sleeve. “You mean the boys who have nothing to do since you refuse to provide the one public service they’re entitled to and expected to do during this fucking nightmare of a camp run by an egomaniacal psychopath?”
“OK, yeah, I agree that’s not ideal. But obviously, it’s not our fault! You don’t support public education—we’re not the bad guys here! If you’d just agree to our demands, we’d have the best school on the planet! And Li isn’t a psychopath! He runs a nonprofit!”
Phyra laughed and wiped her eyes with the back of her free arm. “Best school on the planet. Your dog has a fucking human arm, Teri! And yes, yes I do know what’s been happening to my daughter and the other girls. As well as how, thanks to you, the Legal Team refuses to help them, because they believe I want them to create a fucking police force. My ex-husband was a cop. I fucking hate those blue lives assholes.” Phyra tightened her grip on her scalpel. “So now the girls are forced to arm themselves. Because of you. You, Teri. You and your puppet master, Li, are the root of every single one of my goddamn problems. Fucking selfish, lazy-ass, delusional fucking teachers!”
“No!” Teri’s hand was up and whirling through the air before she realized what was happening. Bam. It was the red wormhole. It was her dad’s coffin. It was everywhere around her and Teri wanted to explode into a million fractals of rage. Bam. She slapped Phyra, narrowly missing the baby’s head. “Never, NEVER speak ill of teachers—or Li! You have no idea what we’ve been through!”
A stunned silence fell over the tent, minus Janice’s chewing noises. (Oh god, ew, oh god.) And then Phyra’s baby really started screaming.
“I have no idea? You have no idea what parents have been through! What you’ve done to our children!” Phyra lunged up and slashed at Teri with the scalpel in rage. And all Teri could do was throw her hands up in the air and scream in fear.
“NO! You don’t understand!”
Phyra’s knife stopped just an inch away from Teri’s neck. Her voice dripped with hate. “Yes, I know exactly what happened, and exactly who to blame, once again. The only thing stopping me from doing this is the oath I took the day I became a doctor. Do no fucking harm. The only thing, Teri. You, Angie, and the others have failed our kids, failed them over and over and over, and so help me god, the day of reckoning is coming, with or without this scalpel. And no matter how badly you want to fuck that monster playing you like a hamster. Now get the fuck out of my hospital!”
Teri whimpered and turned to go, terrified and furious. Phyra was wrong! She was totally fucking wrong! Teachers were inherently good, obviously! They were the ones being fucked over. Them and the kids—by the system. “I’m leaving now, but I swear I’m going to get Angie and Li and come back here with a fucking army to set you straight. I may not be in control over the mess in the world, but don’t you dare accuse me of being a puppet here. I’m in control! Not you, and not Li!” Teri tried to flee, but Janice refused to budge, too consumed with her hairy arm.
“No you’re not! Ew, what is wrong with you?!” Phyra lifted her foot and kicked Janice, trying to get the dog from the half-eaten human arm. “You can’t win this. You don’t even know anything about Angie, or Li! Try smelling the inside of her masks, you moron.” Another kick. Janice growled. “Angie gets vaxxed every month and runs a side business selling off-brand therapy drugs for the virus. She’s not wearing the things because she gives a shit about the kids or anything else. Just like the rest of you hypocrites.”
It was too much. Teri grabbed Janice once more and ran, utterly consumed with rage and righteous clarity.
Teri needed Li. She needed him to set this right. Phyra had to be stopped, no matter what it took.
She was wrong. Teri was in control. Li would do exactly what she told him to do.
Teri found Li floating in the ocean, totally naked, looking so perfect, even if he fucked up here and there. He at least could change. He’d listen. A yes. It was almost obscene after what she’d just been through. The world had stopped making sense. Teri didn’t even hesitate. She stripped off her own filthy clothes and waded in.
Her lips were all over him before she realized what she was doing. “I need you to say yes, too, because I have demands.” She was saying yes, no holds barred. Yes to this. Yes to her friend. Her closest friend, the one who made her feel safe but would also let her push back and make him better, the one who could stop Phyra. The one who’d been very clear with his body language today; she’d been wrong before to doubt him. Phyra could not be right.
Until she noticed Li wasn’t kissing her back.
Teri pulled back in and backed away towards the beach, keeping her body low in the water to shield her nudity. Her heart was racing. Was Phyra right?
Li sat up in the water, tilted his head, and looked at her. “That was interesting. Binary relationship conceptualization. Is that what you’re stuck in with Phyra, and Mark, too? You consume me, Teri, with your intense feelings and ideas. You flow through me like no person ever has.”
“What?” Teri had no idea what to say. She stared at him instead, flesh goosepimpling in the cold. What had just happened?
“Well, I’ll leave you with that thought, Teri.” Li crossed the distance and placed his lips on hers, but it was so chaste. Horribly chaste. “I’m so proud of you, changing your algorithm. You’re almost there, love. Thank you for the gift of you. I wish so hard for this.”
He hadn’t done a single thing she’d asked.
Teri dipped all the way underwater and screamed and screamed until her lungs burned.
That Friday night at bonfire as Li ran through the preliminaries, Teri glanced down at the way her right leg was touching Mark’s and felt a surge of electricity—and so much clarity. They were sitting with Janice on the tree trunk in the inner ring of the bonfire and Teri shivered at how real this had all gotten since she had collapsed on the beach earlier in the week. Everything. She could feel every molecule of her body quivering in anticipation and savage anger. Tonight was going to be bad; she could feel it. Welcomed it.
Phyra stood up across the fire with her monstrous blonde baby strapped to her front and faced the Education Team, eliciting widespread groans. Phyra looked tired, wary. She wouldn’t even look at Teri anymore, like Teri was some sort of unmentionable.
Phyra’s speech was the same old tirade. “When are you going to open the schools? If we support your salary proposal, will you promise that the school will be open tomorrow? Will you stake your lives? I can’t keep asking my Tay to babysit just because you refuse to do your jobs.”
There was an immediate roar of anger from the Education Team, and Angie got up and stalked over to Phyra. It was, frankly, a well-rehearsed script after seven months, and Teri was getting bored of the whole thing. Disgusted even at the basicness of this discourse, of the solutions in play. What a failure some of these people were who refused to grow like Teri. She let her leg sink briefly into Mark’s, and then pulled back. He scooted a little closer. Thank god she hadn’t fallen for him. Or Li.
The blackness in Teri’s breast grew and blossomed.
Angie clapped twice at Amy’s face. “We are not your babysitters!”
As usual, the Education Team erupted in cheers from their place in the audience. And Teri watched with satisfaction as the Food Team clapped along, and a few others, including some of the members of the Pleasure Team. Increasingly bitter satisfaction. Clearly, Pia’s relationship with GRACE had paid off for everyone involved.
Phyra was still lecturing. “I didn’t say you were babysitters! I just said that our kids need to be in school, and you’re not providing school. How is that radical?!” But no one was listening to her; it was all such theater to Teri. She wanted it done. Gone. The problem was obvious, and it wasn’t her or the kids.
She was clearly the moral conscience of this camp. It was time for them to listen to her, and tonight was the night for her to speak up. As soon as Li made his announcement. That was her plan.
Mark abruptly stood up next to her, and Teri tensed. “So here’s a proposal, and something I’ve learned from the sexy ass Pleasure Activists: Why don’t we make a truce with sex—you and, let’s say, Teri—and finally get your kid what you both want?!”
Teri yanked at Mark’s leg to pull him back down, but he stepped closer to the fire and cameras instead. Teri yelled at him to stop, but he refused.
His voice grew strangely loud and impossible to ignore. “In fact, here’s an even better idea: I’ll join you. It’ll be a threesome. Two math teachers and a doc; it’s like the best porno! And Teri’s good—much better than she looks. Check it out.”
And much to Teri’s complete rage, Mark tapped something on her phone and every phone in the room went ding.
“No, no. Please don’t be what I think that is,” Teri whispered to herself. “Please.”
“Ojala! Teri, you’re really flexible,” someone behind Teri remarked.
“She sure is.” Another man, somewhere else. People were laughing now.
Time stopped for Teri and rage froze into something very, very cold and black.
People were holding up their phones, and the sound of Teri panting and moaning was everywhere, all at once. Teri wanted to die. Mark had put a video of her at the Deaf Camp on Twitter. How had he even taken that video? There had been no cameras, and he wasn’t even there—was he? There was a pounding drumbeat in her ears, like the pulse of hot blood with deep space harmonics.
Amazingly, Mark had the audacity to speak again. “We have the threesome, and you give us all your money, Li, and we’ll divide it up equally. That’s the only fair way. Stop cheaping out on us, brother.”
Li stepped forward.
Teri tensed in anticipation, her whole body twitching. It was almost Teri’s turn to speak her truth. No one was taking Mark seriously, of course; hopefully, he hadn’t ruined her chances with that video.
“As you know, the Institute has limited funds.”
Teri didn’t believe that for a second. Her leg trembled.
Li continued. “We can either pay you all equally, if most of you take a drastic pay cut, or you can vote on the fair distribution of funds by merit. Are you communists or socialists, hmmm?” Li laughed lightly.
“That’s not good enough!” Someone shouted from the dark. The responses to Li’s party line had gotten more and more irate, though there had been a lot of ugly debate over Twitter about the socialist versus communist provocation.
Tonight was different.
Li smiled. It was a slow smile and all the hairs on Teri’s neck stood on end. Yes.
His voice was whisper quiet. “Of course it isn’t. You are in quite a quandary. Would you like to kill me and steal my bank accounts? Is that the radical solution?” Li paused for a long second and raised his voice slightly. “Or maybe have the power to kill each other?” Li’s eyes swept over to Teri and held for a long moment and then to the Legal Team, Phyra and back to Teri pointedly.
Teri gasped, and there was a fluttering inside her. What was he doing?
The crowd was dead silent except for Phyra’s baby.
Phyra’s voice crackled like silver lightning. “Are you out of your mind? Something needs to change here, something very fundamental. But killing people? In a camp with kids?!”
Teri grabbed her phone, along with everyone else. Everyone was pressing in. It felt like a thunderstorm was building.
“No? Okay, just kidding, folks.” Li Tunde laughed, and it was like the Earth spun all the way around in a second, and the moment was gone, but not really. The air suddenly felt fundamentally different; the ringing in the air got louder in Teri’s ear and Janice went from barking to howling.
Li clapped his hands, and the sky went boom. “Let’s call it a night then. Who’s ready to party? Janice?”
Not Teri. The shaking inside her was building.
Kill each other? He couldn’t just say something like that and then walk away, especially since Teri hadn’t even gotten a chance to speak! Kill?
A low bass beat sprang to life and waiters appeared with champagne, as they always did at the end of these things. Teri usually drank freely, too freely, but tonight felt different. Teri didn’t—couldn’t—move from the log.
She stared at Phyra through the flames of the bonfire. Phyra was shaking her head and packing up her baby for the night to leave; she never stayed for the party anymore. Would she kill Phyra, if she could? Hypothetically, of course. The thing inside Teri unfurled a little more and she shivered with pleasure and dawning understanding.
She had tried taking Li’s advice to change her own equation. She had said yes. But the problem wasn’t her own positive or negative valence, was it? It was one—or maybe two—fundamentally unbending, corrupt variables. And taking a radical meant removing variables. The purity of the complicated world without obstacles, like the unyielding stars in the night sky. No one said utopia was going to be perfect, but it also didn’t need to be hell. It just had to be righteous.
Teri stared at Li, who turned around and nodded at her with a smirk. This was the real work, wasn’t it? This was when she really became a radical. This is what she’d been waiting for.
Teri swiped open her home screen and typed without thinking. Her heart pounded.
Teacher Teri is a Cosmic Radical @RadicalMathTeachgrr
🧵Thought exercise: What’s more radical, removing @doulaonamission from the equation altogether within a constrained variable or unconstraining the variable but letting @doulaonamission live and continue to limit the equation?
Teacher Teri is a Cosmic Radical @RadicalMathTeachgrr
Aka, should we kill her? /🔪🔪🔪🔪
Teri’s finger hovered over the “tweet” button. Twitter wasn’t real life, of course, but still. She lifted her hand away.
The stars twinkled above.
Teri glanced up to watch Phyra’s retreating back in the night sky, then Mark dancing. He was an asshole, for sure, but he sure looked good in his Wash U shorts and blonde halo gyrating by the fire.
Her phone buzzed again.
Ataal Itx @ataalitxASTRATH
@RadicalMathGrrrl Why not two kinds of deaths tonight? @Doulaonamission and @markgiveshimselftoyou? 🔪🍆 ❤️🔥 #tarkstan
She slapped her hand to her mouth in titillation, glanced at Mark, and then looked back down and hit like, and then unlike.
Could she? She caught the eye of Phyra glaring at her across the parking lot. She’d never hated so much before.
She hit like again.
A gun appeared in her sleeping bag the next night, fully loaded.